Search Results for: adventure games

The Adventure Gamers Store is open

The season of GDC-and-PAX is upon us, which means more gaming news than any one human can hope to digest. And yet, I will burden you with a couple more snippets.

The AdventureGamers.com site, which has been reviewing adventures in various forms since 1998, has opened a web storefront specifically for adventure games. Hadean Lands is in the launch lineup, as are several other indie highlights: Dominique Pamplemousse, Lumino City, stacks of Wadjet Eye and Daedalic titles, etc.

(AdventureGamers.com gave Hadean Lands a super-nice review back when I launched.)

Note the Adventure Gamers Store currently only offers Windows versions of these games. (They say they hope to add Mac/Linux in the future.) Also, everything is currently priced in Euros. (You can buy from the US or anywhere else, don't worry.) I've set the HL price at €4.39, which makes it a fractionally better deal than the $4.99 price I've got everywhere else. Snap it up before the winds of currency conversion shift!

And in other news about places that sell HL...

The Itch.IO site has just announced that they will start taking a share of game revenues. (For most of their history they have been a completely free service.) This change will happen on March 23rd.

Unlike most platforms, they are going to let the game author decide what cut Itch takes of their games. They suggest 10%, but the author can move that slider anywhere between 0% (author keeps all the loot) up to 100% (donating all revenue to support Itch).

This is a sweet idea, and very much in the spirit of the Itch service. I am happy to support it by offering them the same 30% taken by Apple, Steam, and (for that matter) the Adventure Game Store. You can buy HL via Itch here.

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The best achievements are the least obvious

AmusingOne of my favorite aspects of Portal 2 is its effective use of achievements, those meta-gamey pleasure-center tinglers now ubiquitous across modern videogames via services like Xbox Live and Steam. While the game carries the usual payload of milestone-badges, unavoidably “unlocked” just by traversing its two play modes, it splits the remainder between encouraging various player interactions in co-op mode and inviting a replay of single-player mode in a new context. This latter class of achievements proves most interesting to me, and brings to mind a certain beloved feature of classic text adventure games.

Some of Portal 2’s achievements offer straightforward challenges: one, for example, asks the player to solve a particular puzzle-chamber in fewer than 70 seconds. I find these the least engaging of the lot (and not just because I’ve so far failed to get my time under 100 seconds, ahem). Better are those that name a location in the game, but only hint at what one should do there. One of these instructs the player to “break the rules” in a certain chamber, and it’s up to them to figure out what this means, once they get there. For me, even though I’d seen and heard everything on this level already, the achievement-nudged realization of what I could do proved a fresh delight.

The most obscure of these achievements invert this pattern, suggesting what to do but not where, such as “Portrait of a Lady: Find a hidden portrait.” Even more enigmatic is the “Pit Boss” achievement, which bides you to simply “Show that pit who’s boss,” drawing the player to retrace their steps through the game to seek pits inviting extra interaction (and there is indeed one). My very favorite such achievement had me solve an optional layer of puzzles lurking in one section of the game, one that hid in plain sight during my first playthrough. I may have applauded my television when I realized.

I identify these coy achievements as the modern manifestation of the “AMUSING” postscript that would appear upon the completion of an Infocom text adventure game appears in certain 1990s text adventures, as well as some reprints of Infocom works (thanks to Zarf for the correction in the comments to this post). The game would invite the victorious player to type AMUSING to see a list of things of they might not have explored during their journey through the work — anything from one-off actions that generate sarcastic responses to entire, optional subsections of the game. More to the point, these were things that the game’s author felt they put a lot of clever work into, and hoped that player might go back to see if they missed them the first time ‘round. (One does still find AMUSING lists in some modern IF — the Inform 7 manual devotes a section to it — but their presence as end-of-game reward doesn’t have the ubiquitous status it once did.)

Granted, the comparison becomes more apt due to my own approach to achievements, especially in adventure games like Portal 2. Highly spoiler-averse, I refuse to even look at a new game’s achievement list if I anticipate a great story. Only after I survive through the ending credit roll will I allow myself to peek and see what I’ve missed. Lately, I begin to suspect that, beyond my overt desire to avoid plot giveaways, I’ve subconsciously wanted to treat a game’s achievements screen like an old-school AMUSING list — even before I become wholly aware of the similarity.

In a lesser game, I’d dismiss such vaguely worded challenges as twee, and their pursuit as not worth my time. And even for Portal 2, it took me a few months after my initial single-player traversal to work up the desire to return and mop up those achievements. When I finally did, last week, it felt like a directed homecoming, and I loved every moment I spent breathing that good clean test-chamber air once more, recycled though it may have been.

I’m not normally one to either reread books or replay solitaire videogames, but make exceptions for the the exceptional. And I’m pleased to see commercial adventure game designers find ways to turn some good out of obligatory achievement systems, much maligned and so easy to treat trivially. If they appear to take lessons from some of my favorite works of the distant past to do so, so much the better.

Image credit: “Amusing” by Flickr user kenjonbro. CC BY-NC 2.0.

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Funding the Thunderbeam

Wiley Wiggins, semi-obscure movie star and aficionado of semi-obscure adventure games, has co-founded a team to create Thunderbeam!, an iPad adventure. They aim to capture the spirit of the compelling — and, in retrospect, often disturbing — young-adult adventure-dramas they watched on TV as kids, particularly anime such as Gatchaman (or, as I knew it, Battle of the Planets) and live-action shows like The Third Eye.

Add in an original soundtrack by theremin-enhanced indie rockers The Octopus Project, and you’ve got me desperately mashing a ten-dollar bill into my laptop screen before remembering how Kickstarter works. Happily, they met their funding goal while I was in the middle of writing this post, but the drive remains open for another 11 days, and every dollar helps; I just zapped them a sawbuck in the correct manner.

The team’s website features a lengthy video about the game, interspersed with clips from the various games and TV shows that inspire them. (What crazy show is that completely earnest “Hitler isn’t dead” line from? Were I chewing gum I would have choked on it right then. That is some transcendently bizarre television, which I apparently missed for growing up on the wrong side of the pond).

I must admit some concern about their telling the whole world in lurid detail about the game’s emotional plot twists this early in the project. In my experience, talking too loudly about your work’s actual content — versus revealing teasing glimpses of the shadows said content casts — can sap one’s drive to ship the final product to an audience that has no idea what’s about to hit it. You can trade some of that away for the short-term boost of people telling you how cool your idea sounds, and arguably this isn’t a terrible idea when it comes to collecting Kickstarter pledges. But you need a lot of creative fuel in your tank for the long, long drive towards shipping, so I still advise caution.

Still, just given the talent involved and their clear love for the source material, I feel optimistic that this project will land in the right place. Best of luck from the Gameshelf to Karakasa Games!

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Zombie Cow is now Size Five

The indie studio responsible for two of my favorite recent adventure games, Ben There, Dan That and Time, Gentlemen, Please, has changed its name away from “Zombie Cow Studios”:

The trouble with picking a ‘funny’ name for your company, as I’ve discovered, is that it gets exponentially less funny with time. It was awkward to say out loud in front of grown-ups, and it made my heart sink every time someone mentioned the name of my company. That’s no way to go through life!

So here you have it: welcome to SIZE FIVE GAMES.

Right on.

If you dig adventures and toilet humor as much as I do, you really must play the two Ben & Dan games, by the way. The whole field of comedic Lucasarts-style adventures has been quite tired for a long, long time, but I found these games to rise above it. (Even as they sink far, far lower than many of their contemporaries have dared.) Greg Costikyan sums it up well in this review.

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How to write a touchscreen adventure game

First-person graphical adventures -- Myst -- have become hugely successful in the past several years. Yes, even as Cyan Worlds and Presto Studios and such dinosaurs have withered in the frost. What are popular today are the tiny, casual, unbeautiful and narratively-barren games we call "room escapes". They're written in Flash, and they pour by the dozens out of our web browsers.

Viridian Room screenshot

(Of course, some are huge, some are hardcore, some are lovely, and some are rich story-worlds -- I don't have to link examples, do I? That's not the point. The escape genre has conventions, and they're not trying to live up to what we thought all graphical adventures would be like from 1994 onward.)

When I got my iPhone, I thought "Room escape games! Perfect! Little puzzle environments to explore while riding the subway to work." (This was when I rode the subway to work.) I looked through the nascent App Store, and found... a couple. There was no easy porting path for existing games, due to the whole Flash situation, and only a couple of developers were writing for iPhone directly.

More room escapes have appeared in the past two years, but it's still not a big corner of the App Store. More important: none of the games, as far as I've researched, have really thought about the iPhone (touchscreen) interface, and what it means for first-person graphical adventures.


The model did not originate with Myst, of course. It's almost inevitable in a modern computer UI: you see on the screen what you would see in the world. Your mouse is your hand, and you click an object to push, pull, move, or take it.

...Except that "the modern computer UI" is the mouse and cursor UI. Myst (and its predecessors and descendants) took full advantage of the cursor to provide a graduated, explorable experience. You look; you see an object; you consider whether it might be manipulable; you move the mouse over it; you see the cursor change to a hand; you consider what clicking might do; you click and find out. It's almost a subliminal process, but it's real.

Hello, the touchscreen -- no mouse, no cursor. You're touching the scene directly. That has to improve immersion... right?

Maybe. It changes the game. Simplifying a UI can improve it, but short-circuiting a puzzle can ruin it. Do you explore the room by tapping every object in sight? That's not exploration, that's a rampage. You've just pushed every button, opened every unlocked door, and picked up every object! -- just to get yourself oriented. You might not have even realized that something is a button (or jewel, or door); it fired "all by itself" when you touched it at random. No moment of realization, no intention of agency. The pacing is all wrong.

Designers have tried to cope with this in several ways. Some games simply don't put much weight on discovery; clicking blindly is the expected path. (Not a popular path, however. Game review sites tend to frown on Flash escapers that omit the changing mouse cursor.)

iPhone Riven screenshot

In the iOS port of Riven, Cyan implemented a "shake to reveal" hint mechanism. Shake the phone, and green circles pop up (briefly) around important hotspots. It's effective, but not very immersive. The green circles come across as graffiti on Riven's classical artwork, and -- worse -- they're not much like exploration. You can't wonder about them or discover them. They're a menu, and you folks know how I dislike menus as an adventure UI.

(Down a side path we find the "hidden object" games. These have been ported to iOS in fair proliferation. Partially because they're a popular genre, of course; but also because the discovery model is simpler. The game has no notion of thinking about what to do; you see a correct object and click it. That fits perfectly on a touchscreen. The hidden-object games that include real adventuring elements -- yes, many do -- get away with a suboptimal tapping interface because that's not the main point of the game.)


Let us back up.

Look around; see; consider; investigate; think about results; try it. What can fill these roles? "Look" and "see" haven't changed: we display a scene. You consider an object. You investigate... surely by tapping it. Tapping is the most basic touchscreen interaction.

Now you know the object is manipulable, but you haven't done anything with it. You've gotten a hint about what might happen, and you're thinking about whether to try it or move on. Finally you try... what?

How about dragging the object? Most real-life interactions (outside of elevators and iPhones!) involve moving things, not just touching them. Myst is full of buttons, but it also includes levers and dials -- things to pull, rotate, slide, and lift.

With this, our interface comes together. Tap is investigate; drag is act. Tap a lever, and it jiggles; it is eager to be pulled. Tap a door, and it will shift slightly on its hinges -- unless you hear the sad "clunk clunk" of a locked door. Tap a key lying on a desk, and it will rock a little. Then you pull the lever, or slide the door open, or pull the key to your inventory bar.

And buttons? Frankly, we'll do without them. This is rough news for the porters of an existing graphical game, but rethinking an interface means rethinking your game design. Change them to toggles or knife switches. The good news is that dials and combination locks work wonderfully; rather than clicking "up" and "down" buttons to set digits, you drag the wheels around or spin them with a flick.

Secret Project KLD lock puzzle

I've built a prototype of this interface. You may recall it as Secret Project KLD. I didn't build a complete game, but I built enough to prove that the UI works. The trick is to make these dragging motions continuous -- or continuous enough, anyway. When you drag a slider back and forth, it should actually follow your finger on the track. When you drag a door open and closed, it should move wiht your touch. Full 3D modelling makes this easy, but might be too heavyweight for a mobile device. I found that six or eight "keyframe" images is enough to make the illusion work. The direct responsivity of touch more than makes up for the jerkiness of the animation.

Navigation is trickier (but then, it always is). To see a close-up view of an object (if it has a close-up) you should simply tap it. Tap is investigate, after all. By extension, tapping on an open doorway should move through it, and tapping on the edge of the screen should turn around. Now tap is somewhat double-purposed (but then, it always is). I think this is acceptable; walking around a room to look at things is okay for an automatic action. It's always reversible (perhaps with some jockeying to turn around and find your way back). You won't accidentally solve a puzzle or mess up your known position, as long as the game has no step-and-die traps (which, of course, it shouldn't).

I have most of the KLD game designed, and I modelled quite a bit of it in Google SketchUp. Why did I put it aside? It turns out that SketchUp is good for modelling, but not great for placing comeras or rendering frames of moving parts. My graphics workflow was slow and painful. Also, the artwork that I did produce was sized for older iPhones; I'd have to rethink the whole plan for iPads and the new double-resolution iPhones. I may get back to the game someday, but my immediate future is pinned to text IF.

So here you go. The correct model for a touchscreen-native adventure game. Somebody run with it.

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The Silver Lining, Cease & Desist

Long story short: a group of King's Quest fans has put in about 8 years of work on a non-commercial fan game in the King's Quest line. They worked out an agreement with Vivendi Universal to be able to continue making the game, with a name change to The Silver Lining. Activision now owns the King's Quest IP, and, after several months of talks and negotiations, they have told the group to stop working on the game and to take down their forums. Not wanting legal problems, the group had to comply.

Their webpage gives a fuller account.

There is a new, empty forum up for fans to talk to each other, and there is also a petition to save the game.

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Not IFComp adventure reviews

Since it's IFComp season, I thought I'd get my ducks in a row by clearing my brain of commentary of the last few non-text adventures I played.

(Note: any linearity of ducks is strictly accidental. Use of "ducks in a row" as a metaphor does not constitute any guarantee of IFComp commentary, express or implied, now or later, leaded or decaf. Void where used in void context.)

Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper

(Web site; Frogwares Studio)

Third in the weirdest adventure game series I can recall. Weird for one specific reason: each game so far has had a totally different tone. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened was Lovecraftian horror: chasing down a murderous cult across Britain, Europe, and America, with an apocalyptic (well, nigh-apocalyptic) showdown in a storm-blasted lighthouse. Flashy, full of wild occult connections, occasional chase scenes even.

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis switched antagonists entirely: from squamous Elder Things to Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief (a fictional contemporary of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories). This game took the form of a battle of wits: clues left in wry little notes and riddles, Holmes chasing the thief around London. It wasn't farce -- Lupin really was after the Crown Jewels, and he had a plan to get them. But it wasn't a cosmic struggle for the survival of humanity, either.

And now, Jack the Ripper. Another natural nemesis for the master detective; but on a completely different axis. And the game, once again, runs along completely different lines. No gentleman criminals here. The story is a murky tangle of racism, poverty, prostitution, and revenge, with plenty of syphilis and mutilation thrown in. Not the fantastical set-dressing of Lovecraft's cannibal cults; just straight-up human butchery.

The challenges, too, switch gears. You're not solving riddles, or even lining up the logic-puzzle-like suspect lists of the Lupin game. (Well, sometimes you are, but mostly not.) It's down-and-dirty police procedure. Which way did the knife cut, left or right, shallow or deep? Where did the blood splatter? Which witnesses reported a five-foot-nine shadow, and which five-foot-six? You re-enact murder scenes, dress up mannequins to test theories, and -- memorably -- hack up some hog corpses to try to figure out what kind of knife was used.

(The game isn't graphically bloody, but it doesn't skirt it by much. You are, after all, taking detailed physical evidence from human victims. The game departs from its usual realistic 3D, using stylized flat artwork for the corpses -- and for the pig heads. Nonetheless, it doesn't take much imagination to be revolted by these scenes. If you're suspectible, avoid this game.)

(The good news is, Watson finally has a walking animation. In other words, he no longer teleports from place to place when your back is turned. Forget the gore; Mysterious Teleporting Watson was absolutely the most unnerving thing about the first two games in this series.)

You run into the usual stock of evidence-collection, object-manipulation, and NPC-fetching puzzles. (And one arbitrary set of sliding blocks, sigh...) But this game also adds a large selection of evidence-collation puzzles -- again, the form of the police procedural. For example, after you've assembled a stock of information about when things happened, you enter a timeline scene: Holmes prompts you to place pins on a timeline, and then resolve inconsistencies. Locations are put together on a map; physical descriptions, as I noted, are laid out on mannequins. And all the facts you assemble go onto a big chart, with chains of conclusion leading to further deduction and, eventually, a narrowing profile of the Ripper.

All of these deduction scenes are interactive; they do a good job of pulling you into the act of tracking down a killer. Much better than cut scenes of Holmes monologuing. They follow, as far as I can tell, plausible forensic investigation. (Well, mostly. The perfume analysis bit is disappointingly and arbitrarily abstracted.) The scenes even have a depressingly realistic percentage of null results: half the time, you are tracking through a bunch of facts which turn out to exclude nothing and point to nobody.

What these interactions are not, unfortunately, are good puzzles. Most of them can be brute-forced. The deduction chart, in particular, lets you twiddle each node through its three options until the result lights up green. The designers try to make up for this with multi-stage deductions, but that just increases the number of guesses you have to make. It was always easier for me to grind through combinations of "left-handed... right-handed... taller, shorter..." than to think about the facts in the game world.

I'm not saying I have a better model here. Designing a good puzzle is hard; designing a puzzle around a realistic activity is hard. Doing both together is so hard that you can wind up tuning your entire game design to make it work once... if you're lucky. In trying to cover every aspect of an investigation, Holmes v. Ripper makes itself into more of an interactive movie interspersed with puzzles.

Mind you, there aren't enough good interactive movies out there. You should play this one, as long as you have a strong stomach.

But I have no idea what Frogwares will do with the next game. Their web site says it's in development...

Cursed Mountain

(Web site; Deep Silver Inc)

This Wii title was mentioned at a Penguicon "what games are you looking forward to?" panel. It sounded cool: survival horror with Buddhist mythology.

As it turns out, it's Fatal Frame on a mountain. Ghosts jump out at you and you kill them with your blessed pickaxe. Nothing wrong with this as a premise; I miss Fatal Frame. (The latest iteration of that series was published only in Japan.)

Sadly, Cursed Mountain is terribly thin on gameplay; it just doesn't push any boundaries at all. You search levels for keys (for locked doors) and magical symbols (dispelled with a little gesture game, to unlock doors). You smash barrels jars, all of which look the same, and which contain either nothing or health drinks health incense. And then ghosts jump out at you, so you whack them or shoot them with your magic pickaxe -- don't ask me, apparently magic pickaxes can shoot ghosts -- until you can dispel the ghosts with the same little gesture game.

Oh, and you find a lot of journals to read, for storyline.

Very occasionally you get to play a different gesture game (meditating, or balancing on a beam) but there really isn't any sense of variety. You never think "Ooh, I can try doing something else here!" The game just changes modes on you, briefly.

Yes, I could be describing plenty of different survival horror games here. It's not like Silent Hill got famous for rich gameplay. But the typical game offers some kind of changeup -- boss fights, or weapon upgrades, or bonus items. Cursed Mountain waves a hand at all of these, but they don't work. The bosses are some extra ghosts that fly, with extra magic symbols to gesture at. The weapon upgrades are tactical downgrades; I never found anything more effective than the third weapon you get, so I never switched after that. And the only bonus item is, as far as I could tell, a statue that makes your next two pickaxe blows more deadly. (You can't even decide when to use them -- zero added interactivity.)

As for the story -- your brother disappeared on the mountain. He had an evil mountain-climbing mentor. There's some Buddhist treasure somewhere. Try writing the rest yourself. Evil guy wants the treasure, evil guy disrespects the local religion, curses, ghosts, mass slaughter. The use of Tibetan Buddhism ought to be cool, but it's been pounded into a template that feels exactly like every other Japanese horror game out there: clumsy sexual innuendo (secret Tantric rituals!) and oh no human sacrifice. Resulting in monsters.

The developers are not, as it turns out, Japanese. (I believe it's a German studio.) But they sure got the tone right, or "right", and the result is more a case study in creepy cultural appropriation than in Buddhist theology.

Cursed Mountain also manages to lift the worst possible checkpoint system from Japanese action games... okay, not the worst. I don't want to know what the worst is. But this one is pretty bad: the game autosaves when you reach particular triggers, but only the first time you reach a trigger. You can never decide to save. So if you're trundling along with low health, and you reach a save point, that's your save state. If you lose a fight and die, tough -- you come back with low health. No fair running off to a health shrine and then re-saving.

I have not finished Cursed Mountain. You can't make me. I ran into a boss fight with low health, died about five times in a row, finally struggled through it, and then hit another big fight with even lower health. I just don't care enough to continue.

And to be fair, this annoys me. Not just because I'd climb a mountain of Towers of Hanoi to explore one bit of scenery I've never seen before. (Although I would.) Not just because the game is a waste of a decent horror premise (which it is), or the second horror game in a row I've given up on because the fighting wore me out. (Which it is too.)

But because Cursed Mountain is only marginally worse than all those other games I've played. Nothing about it is a raging disaster. All the pieces are kind of fun. It's just a steady stream of tolerable. The nicely-laid-out levels and intensely atmospheric environments -- see, I can say nice things -- are not quite enough to make it work. I wish they were.

Tales of Monkey Island

(Web site; Telltale Games)

I never played the original Monkey Island games. Even more heretically, now I don't want to. Telltale Games pull off their episodic contributions with the finely-honed design skills that we now all know from Sam & Max. (Wallace and Gromit was somewhat limp, which had me worried, but apparently pirate snark is sufficiently similar to private-detective snark to put their dialogue writers back on track.)

I just don't believe the older games were this well constructed.

Sure, I could be wrong. I'll cope. In the meantime, my ignorance lets me attest that the Tales episodes are fully comprehensible to newcomers. There's clearly backstory -- you're married, you have a nemesis and a voodoo ally -- but it's all cleanly introduced and it doesn't drown in the lake of dredged-up back-references that I feared. I've played two out of the promised five episodes; the first set up a story arc, and then the second carried it forward with twists, and, well -- it's well-constructed. Enough said, really.

Or not quite enough. I should lay out I mean by "well-constructed"...

  • The player always has goals, short-term and long-term.
  • Every action the player needs to take is motivated -- even (especially) the actions with surprising results.
  • Correct moves are rewarded immediately.
  • Incorrect moves are also rewarded immediately. The response explains why your attempt failed, and also reiterates what you wanted to do.
  • The game clearly distinguishes "that can't be done" from "you tried to do that wrong."
  • Also "that doesn't work" from "you can't do that yet" from "you've already tried that, and it didn't work."
  • If a puzzle requires deep experimentation, the game (usually) locks you in with it, so that you can't mistake "doing it wrong" for "need something else, come back later".
  • Funny.

Not to mention the particular virtue of the episodic adventure: repeating elements that you recognize and rely on as the series progresses.

These are all freshman-level design points, and why do I even list them? Because they are executed consistently and cleanly, so that the player's trust never fails. "Listen to what the game is telling you" is the right strategy, and is taught as the right strategy, and so the player gets through.

Sure, you get a lot of reiteration of goals, and a lot of over-explained action results. That's fine. Solving ten easy puzzles is more fun than solving nine hard ones and getting stuck on the tenth. Telltale gets that.

Also, funny.

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Forerunner foray (or, blasts from the past)

I blogged a while ago about Adventure on the iPhone -- Colossal Cave, that is, not the text adventure. Now Peter Hirschberg brings us the other one: Atari 2600 Adventure on the iPhone. It's a free download.

(As Nick Montfort likes to remind me, Warren Robinett intended his Atari Adventure game to be a port of the text game Adventure. It's extremely stylized, of course, but it's got the mazes and the monsters and the keys and the puzzles... the giant bat must be a reject from Wumpus, however.)


While my back was turned, Fantasy Flight Games got the rights to republish Cosmic Encounter. Great Bird of the Galaxy!

Cosmic was the game of my college years; we played a couple of games just about every Sunday afternoon. It was already out of print from its second publisher, and then (in 1991) reprinted by a third, and I could go on all day about the shortcomings of its various incarnations. And the expansion sets. (I had the enormous luck to find a copy of Eon's original Expansion Pack #8 in a dusty Pittsburgh gameshop. Kickers, kickers were key. I never cared for flares that much.)

Cosmic reappeared in 2000 in a nicely-produced -- but expensive and oversimplified -- box set from Avalon Hill. Then Cosmic Encounter Online, a capable (okay, still simplified) browser-based game which is still going strong. And now the wheel turns again: a new box set. Fantasy Flight's web site says it will ship this month for US$60.

The new edition looks pretty good. The famously complicated turn structure is diagrammed on each alien power card, with the important phase (for that power) highlighted. (Preview examples: Mind, Pacifist, Parasite, Loser, and newcomer Tripler.) No star-system hex boards, but you can make your own if you want the classic experience.

The all-important artwork is satisfactory. (And when I say "satisfactory", I just mean "I will always be wedded to the Eon artwork of my youth.") Kevin Wilson, the game designer in charge of the project, calls the style "retro-futurism", which I'd agree with -- old pulp covers, more than a hint of Frank Kelly Freas.

It will ship with 50 aliens, a decent selection -- handily graded by play-difficulty, if you want to introduce new players to the game. Expansion sets are promised. To be sure, each republisher of Cosmic has promised expansion sets, and I don't recall that any have succeeded except for Mayfair's minimal More Cosmic Encounter in 1992. Hopefully FF's edition will get enough love to keep growing.

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More iPhone adventures

A quick note: Craig Smith has ported Frotz to the iPhone. This means that you can play I am not kidding hundreds of text adventures, including all of mine. Frotz is a free download in the iPhone App Store. (It's a Google code project.)

The app comes with a nice stack of games. (Including the famous Zarf games A Change in the Weather, Spider and Web, and The Dreamhold. Also the famous not-by-Zarf-but-he-shows-up game Being Andrew Plotkin.) But the really boss trick is that it lets you browse IFDB, directly from the Frotz app. Select any Z-code game, and it's automatically downloaded and added to your game list. Think of it as a mini App Store for IF -- only all free.

(I really have to adopt some cover art for my games. I did a cover for Shade that I rather like. For the rest, I will go back and look at Emily Short's IF Cover Art Drive. There were some great contributions in there, but I never bestirred my butt to accept any of them.)

iPhone Frotz is a 1.0 release, and I see some rough edges, but very small ones. The worst problem I've found is that The Dreamhold plays very slowly -- not every move, but when you do something interesting. This bothers me, because The Dreamhold is my shot at an introductory IF game -- it's designed to coach players who have never tried IF. I want it to run well. My current theory is that displaying italicized text is much slower than printing plain text.

More later. (I forgot to charge Mr Shiny since getting back from vacation, and I should save what's left of the battery for, maybe, receiving phone calls.)

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iPhone adventures

The iPhone App Store has opened, and it is time for all game-bloggers of good will to talk about iPhone games.

(The ones of ill will are doing it too, as are those of ill mind, of weak will, and of bad wind. I won't fuss about which of these categories I'm in. Zog knows I can't climb that many flights of stairs without going all anaerobic on my mitochondria.)

I see there are... 219 games as I write this. I haven't found a good way to browse them; the in-phone browser doesn't do subcategories, and iTunes doesn't seem to have complete lists in any category. (At least, this doesn't look like it adds up to 219.) But never mind. I've skimmed through the lists, and seen the expected variety: shoot-up games, tilt-marble games, rhythm-tapping games, and the entire continent of casual puzzle games. (Which consists of the Republic of Rule Mazes, the Sodality of Sudoku, the Mahjongg Concord, the Other Sodality of Solitaire, and so on. All of which are pinched corners around the Grand Imperium of Click On Three Identical Cute Animals. Or jewels or what have you. But usually animals.)

Really, the only reason I post stuff on the Internet is to use the word "sodality" as often as possible. Thank you, Brannon Braga.

But I'm interested in adventure games. Adventures are a gaping hole in the iPhone lineup. Can this be? Surely adventures are common casual gaming fodder! Really -- do any web search on "room escape". Each of these games differs from Myst only in that it is small, indoors, and (usually) visually stylized rather than photorealistic.

It is true that every one of these tiny adventurelets is written in Flash. And the iPhone has no Flash player. But heck -- every shooting, tapping, marbling, mazing, three-animal-clicking games on the Web is in Flash too, and developers had no trouble porting those to Mr. Shiny.

The graphical adventure form needs few changes to run on a touch interface. You don't have the ability to click on tiny details -- but "hunt-the-pixel" was always the reductive failure of graphical adventures (as "guess-the-verb" is for text adventures). It's what happens when the game isn't working. So design your scenes for big hotspots. You don't have a cursor to change to indicate hotspots, either. Maybe dragging your finger around a scene should cause hotspots to flash, to indicate their existence that way. Or maybe you just need really good visual focus.

This is important because graphical adventures normally have two levels of response: one indicates that you can use an item (cursor change), the other is for when you decide to use it (click). And so puzzles can involve a certain amount of "What do I want to do first?" If tapping something activates it, most of your game interactions are going to be accidental. ("Hey, I guess that was a lever!") That's a big rethink of the form.

(Sure, you want to adhere to the "no death, no mistakes" rule -- casual adventuring demands that. But even a benign irreversible action is irritating, if you hit it accidentally. And room escape games have lots of irreversible actions. It's a design convention: when you push the button it stays pushed, when you solve the puzzle it stays solved. Keeps the player's momentum forward.)

Maybe we should roll with the dragging idea: design most of the game elements to require motion rather than tapping. Tapping just causes a quick bounce or jiggle reaction. So if you tap on a cabinet door, it jiggles; that tells you that you can drag it open. I like this idea, actually. Levers everywhere instead of buttons. Drag the carpet back to look under it. Drag found items to your inventory, then drag them back to target hotspots.

I'm not sure whether edge buttons or flick-scrolling is better for turning left and right -- that will require some testing. (If finger dragging gets coopted for one of the above ideas, I guess you're forced to use edge buttons.) Pinch-zoom seems like a clever idea for close inspection of scenes, but I suspect it will work best in moderation -- closeups only.


Text adventures! My character sheet says I'm supposed to talk about text adventures. (In fact I already have; this bit of bloggery is adapted from a couple of posts I made on rec.arts.int-fiction.)

The App Store already has a text adventure -- the text adventure.

Advent Splash

This is a freeware application being distributed by "Pi-Soft Consulting" (which looks like it's the same as Shawn P. Stanley).

A bit of historic neepery which will be of interest to practically nobody: the splash text shown above is misleading. It is taken from Graham Nelson's Inform port of Adventure -- which, as the note says, is adapted from Dave Baggett's TADS version of Don Ekman's Fortran source code.

Which is fine, except that Shawn P. Stanley didn't use Graham Nelson's port. He adapted Jim Gillogly's C source code. This also descends from the Fortran version.

The two versions feel rather different. Were one to play Graham Nelson's version of the game, one would find a refined parser supporting features such as "get all", more synonyms, abbreviations like "x" for "examine", and a long historical introduction. Gillogly's port uses the original, simplistic parser. There are a few gameplay differences as well.

On the other hand, it's the same game. Both versions cover the classic "350-point" Crowther&Woods edition of Adventure, as opposed to any of several extended remixes. I just don't get why Stanley chose to write his credits this way.

(I'm not accusing him of misconduct. Adventure has always been, in hacker tradition, been considered free software. Jim Gillogly's port is explicitly licensed as open-source under the BSD license. And Stanley is distributing iPhone Advent for free.)

On both hands, the dedication to Stephen Bishop is appropriate to any version of Adventure.

Let's take a look at the game itself.

Inside Building

The interface is straightforward. You have an input line. When you tap on it, the usual iPhone tap keyboard appears, and you type your command. Hit Return and see what happens.

Well, perhaps not so straightforward. This implementation only shows the response to your most recent command. There is no scrolling game history, such as IF players are used to. If you type "get lamp" at the prompt above, the visible text changes to the single word "OK" -- poor context at best.

The obvious fix is to move the input line to the bottom of the screen, and show the game history above it. Right?

Wrong. The iPhone really wants the input line near the top of the screen, because the keyboard is always at the bottom. If the input line is at the bottom edge, it'll just slide uphill when the keyboard pops up, and that wouldn't be great.

So I want the input line at the top but a standard IF scrolling pane below it, with commands interspersed in the usual way. (You'd have to ensure that finger-scrolling only affected the text pane, not the entire screen. This is possible -- in fact Advent does it, with long responses such as the "help" output.)

(That model obviates the need for the input line to keep showing the last command, which is confusingly out-of-order.)

What else does the perfect iPhone IF application have? I'll move away from criticizing iPhone Advent, and talk about general features.

I'd like a special button to the right of the input line, which brings up a menu of one-touch common IF commands. A compass rose of movement commands, "look" and "inventory", maybe "undo". (iPhone Advent doesn't support "undo", but modern IF does.)

The splash page should have a "how to play" button. The mainframe-style "Do you want instructions?" when you start is all wrong.

PDA IF traditionally has some kind of "tap a word to paste it" interface. I want that but it's hard to do with a touch-screen, because words are tiny. The ideal solution might be to invisibly mark up the output text with "this word is important" spans. That opens up a certain amount of blind hunt-the-pixel exploration, but if brute force is tedious and generally useless -- ie, if only the obviously important words are marked -- I don't think it would sidetrack players.

Finally, the backgrounds. I rather like Advent's low-contrast cave photos. (Emily Short disagrees.)

Background Map Concept

However, what would be even keener would be a map. (I like drawing my own maps, but mobile IF players probably don't have a sheaf of blank paper handy.) Not a complete map, but one that's filled in as you play. You can see the nearby rooms that's you've already explored.

You wouldn't want text on it -- it is, after all, behind the game text, and text on text is hard to read. But a dynamic room map in unlabelled, simple shapes and low-contrast color would be cool. Highlight the current room (or keep it centered). This image is my quick sketch of the concept. Maybe it works? Maybe I'm nuts? Too bright yellow, for sure, but it's late so that's what you get.

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Bow Street Runner

Via Wonderland, I see that the web-based adventure game Bow Street Runner is complete, after growing in chapter-based installments for a while. A production of the UK's Channel 4, it's an interactive and deliciously lurid dramatization about the birth of the modern police force in 18th century London. It begins with your proto-cop sighing over a dandy who's gotten himself dead in a bad part of town, so off you go to interview the local prostitutes and drunks, and root through garbage troughs. I love it.

Its overall production quality is at least as good as any "CD-ROM game" one might have purchased 10 years ago, when many more companies were trying to turn a dollar by churning out the next big Myst-style hit. But in this case it's free and needs no installation, so I encourage you to give it a whirl if you like this sort of thing too.

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E. Gary Gygax and computer gaming

We have all just heard that E. Gary Gygax, the man who launched a thousand basement RPG sessions, has died.

Others will speak of his impact on the tabletop gaming world. But Johan Larson asked an interesting question:

I wonder how computer games would be different if GG hadn't created D&D. Conanesque fantasy [e.g., "kill him and take his stuff"] would surely be a smaller niche, but would there be any larger effects?

My immediate response is "Heck, yes."

(Note: the following is quite off-the-cuff. I haven't studied the history of computer gaming, outside of text adventures. I lived through that era, but I didn't see everything that went on. Nonetheless, this is my theory.)

Computer gaming would have been wildly different if D&D had never existed. As Johan implies, the earliest CRPGs (Ultima, Wizardry, Hack/Rogue) were explicitly inspired by the idea of getting D&D onto a computer. The earliest adventure wasn't derived from D&D, but D&D was a huge part of its evolution from Crowther's toy to the Colossal Cave that swept the computer world:

Kraley joined Crowther in a months-long Dungeons and Dragons campaign (led by Eric Roberts and including future Infocom co-founder Dave Lebling among the core of about eight participants). "[O]ne day, a few of us wandered into [Crowther's] office so he could show off his program. It was very crude in many respects -- Will was always parsimonious of memory -- but surprisingly sophisticated. We all had a blast playing it, offering suggestions, finding bugs, and so forth."

(from Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave, Dennis Jerz)

It's not a matter of a smaller niche. Withouth D&D, there would have been no such niche, not in those earliest years.

So what other influences were there? The arcade shooters (etc) were all there, independent of D&D. Maybe sim-type games would have taken off earlier, led by Hammurabi and Oregon Trail. There were Star-Trek-themed space-exploration games... Hunt the Wumpus? Maybe, maybe not, and Gregory Yob isn't around to ask. But Pong, Pac-Man, all those, they wouldn't be affected.

So there would have been games. But I can imagine years going by in which computer games did not have the notion of you on the screen acting. The player would control a starship, or an empire, or a yellow chompy dot, but not an avatar of himself.

It would have come along eventually, I suppose. And, okay, this is an extreme extrapolation.

Nonethless... I'd bet quite a lot that the computer game industry as we know it would have launched later and slower. Up until the mid-90s, it was adventures and RPGs that were big games; they drove the game industry in the direction of big budgets and big development groups. The arcade games weren't doing that. So, if RPGs had been delayed, the whole industry would have been delayed.

(Once Doom hit, it became the game-industry driver -- in the US, anyway. I suppose Japan remained firmly entrenched with CRPGs, the Final Fantasy crowd.)

And it goes without saying that a bunch of MIT wackos would never have formed a wacko startup called Infocom. So, there's my life unrecognizable. But I wouldn't be the only one.

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Myst Online: Beyond the Cancellation

Speaking as Uru's premier blogger...

(...he said, lying blatantly...)

The truth is, I've been writing notes about Uru Live for more than four years. So I have a notion I oughtta say something about its end. But it's a silly notion.

I haven't even been here for the whole run. I only logged into Untìl Uru a few times. The community was playing UU; history piled up; things happened. But new worlds were what I was interested in, so I didn't hang out.

You want to hear something funny? Untìl Uru -- the fan-run, fan-hacked servers -- lasted longer than any other phase of Uru. Nearly two years. Some players had more attachment to UU than to the "real" run of the game. It was buggy, inconsistent, devoid of plot, prone to half-assed extensions and updates... it wasn't a game, by any definition. But players felt they had a stake in UU, in a way that never gelled for Uru Live.

And I say this without having been there. I'm reading the tone of the community. In the days since the cancellation post, people have been all over the idea of bringing back UU. It's Cyan's decision, mind you, and Cyan hasn't said anything about it. (They haven't said anything at all about their plans, except that they will continue making games.) But people remember what it was like to be the ones who kept the City open.

People liked that. I will return to this point.

You know what, I'm not even going to talk about the final cancellation of Uru Live. I'll give the thirty-second summary: Gametap funded Cyan for a couple of years. Whatever deal they made, it didn't work out. Cyan spent some time updating their 2003 code, some time fixing bugs, some time updating old material from Path of the Shell, and some time creating new material. None of these really happened fast enough to build a stable, enticing game experience. Maybe if Gametap had pumped the money faster, or for another year, or if Cyan had built something else, or run their game differently, it would have worked. It didn't, so it's done.

(I must address one point specifically: I am not blaming the POTS material for killing Uru Live. It was old hat to a lot of old players, including me. But Uru failed because the growth rate was insufficient. Growth is defined as new players, meaning people who (mostly) haven't played the 2004 expansion packs. 2007 was all new to them. And it still didn't bring them in fast enough. So now you know.)

The real question is: Do I see Uru coming back?

Not in its original form. The plan for Uru was a commercial, online, massively-multiplayer adventure game, with new adventure material constantly being produced by Cyan and consumed by players.

This plan now has several fatal holes. Cyan is smaller than it was in 2003. It has not managed to produce a stream of great adventure material in the online mode. The Uru codebase has scaling issues on multiple axes. (I'm not just talking about frame rate. The player-to-player message system is nearly useless for a large community; the world state model has synch problems in crowded Ages; the physics system is a millstone in several ways; the avatar and clothing system can't make a crowd of people look distinct.)

None of those are unbreakable obstacles -- but breaking any of them would take a pile of time and money. Another pile, I should say. Cyan spent all of 2006 working on these problems, using Gametap's money. The 2007 Uru was vastly better than the 2003 model, but not enough better.

Which brings up the real fatal hole in Uru's plan, which is that it's failed twice now. Only a crazy person would fund it again. By "crazy person", I mean someone who would be willing to throw tens of millions of dollars into a hole and never see it again. And even if you found such a person, would Cyan want to exhume the project? I cannot remotely imagine the burnout, the pain that those coders and admins and artists must associate with Uru right now.

So that's a dumb question: Uru is not coming back as a commercial Cyan enterprise, not anytime soon. The real question is, will Uru return as a player-supported project?

It could, as I've said. If Cyan opens up exactly the same server system that they did in 2004-2006, people will run servers and hang out. It would not be a blip in the gaming universe, mind you. It would be some people sharing a virtual space. Maybe several hundred, maybe as few as fifty, on a regular basis.

Or maybe more than that. If new areas begin opening up, it's more than a chat room. And players have been working on new Uru areas, using homegrown tools, for years. Those efforts went into high gear in mid-2007, when Cyan announced that Uru's social model would grow to include Guilds, modelled after the Guilds of D'ni history -- including the Guild of Writers, the creators of Ages. (In December, Cyan slipped a hint that their intended arc for 2008 was "Rise of the Guilds".)

The player-organized Guild of Writers is using the Uru software of the 2004-6 era. Several showcase Ages are already shaping up. So there's an obvious route: fan-run servers, connected through Cyan but not under Cyan's direct management, with fan-created content posted as it appears. Anarchic and vital, as I've been pushing for all along.

I am glossing over an entire sub-argument: how much oversight Cyan should have over player Ages and storylines. Do they review designs before implementation? Do they accept some as "official" after release? Will there be such a thing as an official constellation of Ages, an official storyline?

I've discussed all these arguments before, in the pre-cancellation era. There wasn't any community concensus then either, but of course all the goalposts are shifted now. (And will continue to shift, since Cyan's plans are still unannounced.) The past week has seen dozens of posts about the "obvious" plan of bringing back Untìl Uru with fan-created Ages. Each of them has an "obvious" notion of Cyan's role in this plan. No two such notions quite agree.

If you dig even a few inches down, I suspect, you'll uncover the real relic of contention: was Cyan's plan for Uru a work of genius, murdered by insufficient funding? Or was it clueless blundering devoid of story, immersion, and interest? (Both sides add a twist of the shallowness of our corrupt society, chill and serve with bitter aperitif.)

I am condensing these points of view, not exaggerating them. Forum threads are going on right now on both themes, and both have been stated in about so many words. (And, I admit, many more judicious and less extreme.) The valuable question is not which is right. (Both are self-evidently true, to an extent. You already knew that.)

The real question is, can you criticize Cyan's handling of story, interactivity, and game design -- all of which I've done, intelligently, I hope -- without also criticizing Cyan's role as the ultimate arbiter of Uru fan work? That is: who says they're so smart? Look at all the mistakes they've made.

Cue wild disagreement on just what mistakes those are. Which is precisely my point.

One might argue someone has to be in charge, if the universe is to have any consistency, and it might as well be Cyan. To which I say: Cyan hasn't been that big on consistency either. Look at any discussion of linking-book logic, or Age instances. Or, don't. Every such discussion descends into pages of detailed minutiae, precisely because Cyan has fudged their rules again and again in their quest for better gameplay. I don't hold this against them -- gameplay should come first.

Since Uru invites us to design gameplay on an Age-by-Age basis, the argument for a Grand Master of Consistency vanishes. This is massively-collaborative art, not a single game. We've had the era of rigid central control. Look how well it worked. Next!

The whole debate assumes that Cyan wants to be overseer of Uru; it assumes they'll have that power. In the UU era, Cyan ran a central authentication server. So they had no real power except the power to shut all the servers down (which they did, when Uru Live launched). But nothing says Cyan even has to go that far. If they release server binaries without that authentication hook, Uru moves entirely into the hands of the players.

Or, for all I know, we could do that hack ourselves.

To some degree, the Uru code -- venerable and scary as it must be -- is not the heart of Uru. I mentioned scaling issues. Who says Uru should continue on Cyan's client and server architecture? Certainly, if I had fifty million dollars to refloat the project, the first thing I'd want is rewrite a whole lot of code.

Yes, we have reasons to lean towards continuity. Dozens of Age models using the current codebase. The Guild of Writers tools are geared for... well, a three-year-old version of that codebase. If Cyan restarts UU, just as it was three years ago, everyone will go there by default.

But virtual world platforms are becoming a commodity. From a quick web search:

  • Second Life. Okay, everyone knows it. And I can't mention it without using the phrase "rain of genitalia". But it's big, well-tested, and you can fence off areas for your own community. Or, heck, run your own Second Life server -- the code is open-source, and I hear it's not expensive to run if you turn off all the server-side physics.

  • Metaplace. Not open yet; don't know much about it. It doesn't seem to be open-source, but the goal seems to be to let people create and script 3D environments.

  • Project Darkstar. Sun offers MMO-specialized server hosting. Open-source, but you have to like Java.

  • Croquet. Open-source software system. Looks low-level, but therefore powerful.

  • Multiverse. Software system for MMO creation. Not open-source, but free for non-commercial use.

This is not intended to be a complete list. (See this post for a much better one.) I'm pointing out that a lot of people are working on this. Multiplayer world hosting is going to be an off-the-shelf solution soon, if it isn't already. Uru is not a perfect system today; it's tempting to ditch its bugs, and equally tempting to ditch the effort of writing our own Age creation tool.

So the real question is: what do we want? And what's stopping us?

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