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Let's use rot13 for game spoilers

ThirteenThis post contains minor spoilers for Fez, but only if you deliberately decipher them.

Yesterday I asked this question on Twitter:

Fez hint request: Jbhyq vg or jbegu zl gvzr gb gel qrpvcurevat gur jevgvat (abg gur ahzoref) nf n fvzcyr pelcgbtenz?

I have asked spoiler-class questions about games, films, or books in this format before, usually to little response. In retrospect, it’s clear that I assumed too much in expecting any friend or follower to see it as anything other than gobbledygook. In yesterday’s tweet, I tried an extra step with appending that URL, and to my delight received several nice replies on Twitter and Facebook — as well as a handful of retweets, which I read as compliments on my chosen encryption method.

Some of my correspondents on Twitter chose to adopt the same encoding. “Anu,” advised one reply. “Pbairefvba vf cerggl enaqbz.”

“V’z gbyq gung gur jevgvat vf n fbeg bs zrgn-chmmyr,” countered another, “fb lrf.”

As suggested by my included URL, these tweets are all encoded in rot13. This is a trivial substitution cipher where each letter in the message is replaced by the letter found 13 places later in the alphabet (cyclically, so that after Z comes A again). Because the alphabet is twice 13 in length, one follows the same steps to decrypt this text back into the clear. Thus, Hello, world! rotates into Uryyb, jbeyq!, and vice-versa.

Unlike many other sorts of encryption, rot13’s goal doesn’t involve preventing unauthorized readers from comprehending the text it affects. Rather, it requires that the reader merely perform an additional, deliberate action to read it. When properly contextualized, an implied contract exists between the ciphertext and its decoded version: the reader who deciphers this text understands its implications — in the case of my tweet, that it may spoil some aspects of the videogame Fez — and is willing to bear any risks therefore attached. In other words, readers who go through the trouble of decoding the text have only themselves to blame if the results make them sad.

The anonymous maintainers of the website did not invent rot13; the site simply offers a simple encryption/decryption service at a pleasantly short URL. Decades ago, users of the primordial internet fora known as Usenet made frequent use of it to politely mask text that some people might not wish to read by accident, and popular news-reading software often made rot13 cycling a one-command operation. While some web-based communities, such as the excellent Making Light, continue this tradition when discussing sensitive material, for the most part it’s no longer common practice in core internet channels.

I have missed it. I love discussing games and novels and such with my friends on Twitter and other media, but I dislike how painfully general the public conversation must stay, as we all tiptoe around each others’ spoiler sensitivities even though many of us are eager to dive into details. (And let us not even mention those who can’t help themselves and blurt things out anyway. My own spoiler alarm bell lies on a hair trigger.) Rolling the archaic but by-gar functional tool of rot13 into Twitter seemed a marriage worth attempting: a tweet is only a wee bucket for text, and a rot13 message ain’t nuthin but text.

Mind you, rot13 encoding isn’t the only way to drop public text into a Caveat Lector envelope. For my Fez question, I could just as easily have slapped it into a pastebin somewhere, in which case my tweet would have looked something like this:

Fez hint request:

However, I see several drawbacks here. It’s not clear at a glance what clicking that URL will actually display, especially to those unfamiliar with (Those who are familiar with it wouldn’t be blamed for not wishing to visit an ad-riddled webpage, while readers who don’t know me personally should probably assume it’s an enticement to crack open some odious spam or worse.) Rot13-encoded text, however, carries by nature the literal size and shape of the text it masks. The meaning of my Fez post is obscured, but its length isn’t, nor is the fact it ends in a question mark. The reader can decrypt the text in confidence that it won’t be anything other than a short question, exactly as advertised.

Furthermore, encrypted text enjoys the same level of permanence as the medium that carries it. Twitter’s public stream is variously archived by individuals and entities small and large, and statements and conversations encrypted in a two-way encoding like rot13 will continue to be readable by anyone for as long as those archives exist, with no reliance on external websites, URL shorteners, or anything of the like. While it doesn’t necessarily matter to me that future generations be able to read my random videogame help requests, I do prefer to keep my communication simple, and letting messages remain entirely self-sufficient seems always a better option to me.

Yes, we must still rely on the presence of a rot13 encode/decode tool, or otherwise — I hardly expect Twitter followers to put their stream-scanning on hold to pick up a pencil and manually decipher my masked messages. But they used to be ubiquitous within pre-web internet browsers, and I dare to dream that one they we may see them become a common feature once again.

I would love to see a new tradition of rot13 usage taking root in online discussion media like Twitter. It’s easy to get started — just follow my lead, using a tool like to encrypt your most spoilerific text. Open with a brief, unencrypted header in subject-line format to provide the necessary context — “Question about Inception:” or “Half-Blood Prince mini-rant: ” or what have you. Close with a link to, just like I did in my Fez tweet, and watch how easy it can be for a good idea to spread.

Image source: CAPL.

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Readings in narrative game history

If you follow Planet IF, you're already all over these links. But if not, you gotta start following two blog-post series that have been rendering early IF and choice-game history into a fine itchy mist of detail and insight.

On the CYOA side, Sam Ashwell has been analyzing various corners of the genre in terms of structure -- with lots of chewy graphs and statistics.

And on the game history side, Jimmy Maher has been playing through every game that can be plausibly be called an IF ancestor. He's trying to find the versions closest to the original source, and he chocks each game up on a solid base of history and context.

...You know what, I don't need to paste any more links here. It's not about this page, it's about Jimmy's. Go look at the DA post list and start scrolling back.

Both series are ongoing, so stick them in your feed reader or your instant paper or your stone burner or whatever technology fries your eyes.

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Interesting Milton Bradley bio

Over at the Play This Thing blog, Greg Costikyan has started to write short and interesting biographies of eminent game designers. He begins with the tale of Mr. Milton Bradley, examining his origins both in life and as a game designer and publisher. Did you know that he is credited with inventing the concept of a "travel edition" game when he produced portable game sets for soldiers during the US Civil War, or that he helped popularize the notion of kindergarten education in the United States?

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Simple Sunday Game Design

David McDonough recently posted his 20th "Simple Sunday" Game Design. Every week, he posts a design for a new game that adheres to the following rules:

  1. The entire description and ruleset must fit on one page (more or less).
  2. No extravagant or custom objects, including cards, tokens, boards, or other devices.
  3. Try to be original; keep it simple.
I haven't read through all of them, but he's recently been doing ones where the board is a piece of paper, and the players battle it out in some way by drawing things on the paper. Check out the interesting games Molecule, Hardscrabble, and Penicillin. Many of these are designs that haven't been playtested yet, so feel free to play them and then give him some feedback.

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Planet IF blog aggregator

Chris Armstrong has started up a "planet" aggregator for interactive fiction news: Planet IF.

This is simply a site which automatically distributes a whole range of IF-related blogs and news sites, including Brass Lantern, Emily Short's blog, Grand Text Auto, and many others. Bookmark Planet IF, or drop your favorite RSS reader onto it, for regular updates on the text adventure world.

(Nothing directly from me, but that's my fault; I don't have any IF-specific feeds.)

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Costikyan on the need for game criticism

Indie-game publisher/agitator Greg Costikyan returns from the recent Game Developers Conference all fired up from a session about game journalism he attended, where he feels he witnessed panelists repeatedly conflating art critiques with product reviews. He ends up writing a lengthy impassioned plea for the game-media community to learn the difference.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.


Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Yes. Inspiration to start producing The Gameshelf was born over similar frustrations over the game media I had a few years ago (and, for the most part, continue to have). I can only hope that the show and its blog can at least make reaching motions in the direction that Greg is pointing, here.

By the way, Greg's Play This Thing! is a very smart small-group blog about interesting games and related topics. By which I mean, if you enjoy the Gameshelf Blog, you should probably drop this other one into your RSS reader too.

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Quick link:

Just discovered, a blog specifically about digital games that have co-op modes. This is the relatively rare (and even more rarely done well) feature that allows two or more people to play a game on the same "side", helping each other tackle the game's obstacles together. A clever idea for a narrow-focused game blog! (Via Wonderland.)

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