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Mammals needed

No long article from me this week; am setting up with a new client to earn money to buy more time to think about games for your pleasure, dear reader. But here a couple of small items nonetheless:


Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is coming out this spring, and she asked a bunch of folks to record very short videos for her to stitch together into a book-tour promotion. This was my contribution:

This is the essay I refer to in the video. It really is one of my favorite written works of game-design takeapart.


There are still a few unclaimed songs in Kevin’s Apollo 18 IF Tribute Album project. It’s particularly needful of a short work of interactive fiction that would complement the song “Mammal”, but there are a bunch of one-move “Fingertips” games that need to be written as well.

The first-draft deadline remains set at February 12. Those who find themselves suddenly inspired to create a They Might Be Giants fan-game at tremendous velocity should feel free to claim a remaining slot and follow the instructions on the original post.

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David Sudnow: Pilgrim in the Microworld

Piano keysNear the beginning of David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld, published in 1983, the author, a Berkeley-based sociologist and polymath, describes his discovery of the Atari VCS at a friend’s party. Missile Command in particular intrigued him so much that he immediately visited a store to buy his own console. That game was out of stock, but the salesperson recommended Breakout instead. He proceeded to play that game obsessively for three months, and then wrote a 160-page book about it. The resulting artifact was unique for its time and remains an unusual work; even as the field of games criticism grows deeper and richer, this book from the previous century has something to teach us.

I want to be clear about this: Breakout challenges its player to hit a ball (a featureless, tiny rectangle of pixels sliding around the screen) with a paddle (same, only larger), chipping away as much as they can of an opposing wall of colorful bricks. It does not try to present any narrative beyond this. And yet Sudnow found it such a rich experience that he filled more than a dozen dozen pages describing his subjective relationship with this one game.

Here I am alone in a pitch-black hotel room, a middle-aged man with some time to kill, getting ready to check out some jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, in possession of an early cretinous offering from a gold rush grab bag of tuby thingies coming our way from hundreds of decision-making puzzle peddlers throughout the new electric “entertainment” industry. And now instead of playing the game it’s packaged up to be, I’ve gotten into more or less occupying myself by outlining invisible triangles across the screen of a TV doodling machine. What am I doing?

Sudnow, who passed away a few years ago, had a particular affinity for music instruction; his eponymous course for learning the piano has outlived him. I did not know about this until I started preparing this review: while the reader can guess Sudnow’s other passion from the many piano-based similes he makes in the book, the author chose to demur when it came to saying anything outright regarding his own background, not inappropriate to expressing a mood of world-dimming obsession on a single object. (We know, for example, that Sudnow had a young son, who in the first chapter introduces his skeptical father to a contemporary video arcade. But then all mention of the boy vanishes completely until the book’s epilogue.)

Viewed in this light, the book becomes a chronicle of how the piano teacher Sudnow entered into, and eventually escaped from, the fallacy of approaching Breakout not as a game but as a fascinating new kind of musical instrument to master. Initially charmed and intrigued by the game — and, one imagines, already seeing a book in it — he arranges a visit to Atari’s headquarters to interview its engineers. There he learns that, contrary to his assumptions, the ball’s movements are entirely deterministic. The programmer he speaks with can fully describe the game-world’s faux-physical mechanics in a handful of English sentences. (The VCS is a plucky machine, but it would be many years before future game-console generations began to deeply simulate real-world physics.)

This leads to his pursuit of learning to play the board “perfectly”, the way one would learn to play a Bach fugue without slipping up. For days on end, he plays a rote pattern of his own design until the ball bounces off-pattern, a clanging sour note, at which point he immediately restarts the game. While practicing like this, he writes, he would press the VCS’s reset switch hundreds of times per hour.

I treated each error as the sign of some local weakness in the sequence, the sign of a raggedness in the movements rather than trouble at another level. Still thinking, still practicing note by note, still insisting it was an already established gesture to be somehow acquired with a yet firmer command.

He spends a chapter meditating on the nature of practice and mastery, both in general and in its application to Breakout. Eventually, and after much frustration, he concludes that Breakout doesn’t want to be played that way. Instead, he embraces what he calls the game’s “lucratively programmed caring,” the way its few but distinct design elements work together to guide the player into getting incrementally better at it, revealing more about its inner workings, bit by bit — but only for those who fulfill their end of its contract, who agree to approach the game on its own terms. Treating it like a piano exercise, it turns out, doesn’t work.

Modern readers will find many of Sudnow’s narrative choices strange. Particularly odd for me is his apparent reluctance to name the game developers he speaks with, or even to acknowledge that Breakout was a designed work, rather than a corportate-engineered artifact. It’s true that Atari, fearing competitive headhunting, acted quite secretively about its employees’ names, famously never crediting any individuals in its game documentation; this makes it understandable that even a more thoughtful video-gamer of 1983 would see Breakout as simply “by Atari”.

While Sudnow dug deeper than that, seeking out Brad Stewart, the VCS port’s programmer, he never mentions his name in the book. When the author discovers that this person no longer worked for Atari, he speaks instead with the programmer behind Super Breakout, the game’s official sequel. And even though he writes about this conversation at length, and refers to it throughout the remainder of the book, he never once reveals his interlocutor’s name. (Perhaps this was Ed Logg, the creator of the Super Breakout arcade game? The internet seems uncertain who made its VCS port.) He’s just the guy who happened to implement the design, and as such is a good source of information about its rules.

The author effectively treats Breakout less as an intentional design than a piece of received wisdom. Despite his access to Atari’s talent, he never asks anyone about the thinking that went into the game. From his viewpoint, the story of Breakout’s development and developers just isn’t interesting enough to make print, not when the game itself is right here. (He does allow himself to speculate fancifully about it, however. In the book’s strangest chapter, Sudnow sinks into a reverie where he has built the game’s first prototype, then engages in a program of rigorous A/B testing in video arcades to develop its precise rules over a period of years — a story that reflects neither Breakout’s actual history, nor a practical methodology for game-makers of that day.)

While it may appear as a flaw to a modern reader, the lack of these viewpoints reveals something interesting. In disregarding the question of design entirely, and paying attention to mechanics only so far as it makes for a better story, Sudnow focuses entirely on the experience of playing this game. And there’s so much deeply personal experience related in Pilgrim in the Microworld — I must again note that this book involves 160 pages written about a ball-and-paddle bleep-bloop videogame from the 1970s — that it shone a light, for me, on how little writing about play experience one can find among the ever-increasing amount of modern game criticism. Both reviews and other critical works, even higher quality examples, tend to focus most of their attention on design and mechanics. The writer’s role as player, their subjective experience of playing the game, often receives the same level of attention as a game’s window-dressing storyline typically does: peripheral, at best. Reading this book makes me wonder what we’re missing, as we write that way.

I do not ask that modern critical writing about games adopt the precise methods Sudnow employed in Pilgrim, or the length he gave it. (Indeed, Sudnow’s prose dips into the purple enough that the book would have been tighter were it a third as long. In which case, you’d still have fifty-five pages about Breakout, by god.) But I do wish for writers to observe how he told a story about playing this game that only he, with his background and life experience, could tell, and did so in a way that proved interesting and meaningful to a wide audience — and still does, three decades later. For how much games writing is that true?

David Sudnow wrote about an artform that, in 1983, few had deeply examined, and he did as best he could. Today there’s whole branches of journalism and academic study growing to fill this space, rapidly developing institutional styles of their own. It would behoove their practitioners to spend some time visiting the unlikely shrine that this pilgrim has left behind for us, and to hear its unique voice.

Pilgrim in the Microworld is currently not in print, which is too bad; I’d love to see a new edition, with a foreword that puts it into context for modern readers. You can, however, find PDFs of it floating around; I grabbed a copy from an academic site, and have taken the liberty of stashing a copy on my own server.

Image credit: Piano Keys, by G Crouch; CC BY-NC 2.0. The video is a recording of yours truly playing Breakout via emulation. Yes, a MacBook trackpad is a poor stand-in for an Atari paddle controller.

Posted in Best Of, Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

I read a book

Last Sunday I finally finished reading and working though Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, a book that Andy’s already written about here. I felt it worth noting my own thoughts, briefly, as someone who isn’t an Inform expert (unlike Andy, whose name appears in the language’s credit roll, for zog’s sake).

I came to this book having already written The Warbler’s Nest using a sort of Pidgin Inform, diving right in and learning the language piecemeal from the IDE’s built-in docs, as well as community resources like Ron Newcomb’s excellent Inform 7 for Programmers. This worked, mind you — I finished the game, more or less on time. I expect that many other recent IF authors have employed the very same strategy, to at least as much success.

Inevitably, though, I remained ignorant about many of Inform’s key features, and had an overall shaky grasp of how the thing worked. For me, Reed’s book spent no more time than necessary on “The Foreman's Office is a room” basics of object manipulation — that’s the easy stuff! — before digging into relationships and rulebooks, two core language concepts I had only a fuzzy notion about. (Yes, of course I wrote a lot of Instead of... rule exceptions in Warbler’s code, but that didn’t mean I knew why it worked, or if there were better ways to do any of it.)

If you are at all interested in learning how to create interactive fiction today, or if (like me) you already know a thing or two but could stand to learn a lot more, I cannot recommend Creating Interactive Fiction highly enough. Rather than offering a language reference (which it isn’t), it provides a guided tour of Inform’s major features by way of a gently iterative traversal of a single, non-trivial IF work’s source text. Crucially, as Andy wrote, Sand-Dancer is not a contrived example game but a solid work in its own right. The process aims to inspire the reader to continue their IF-crafting studies with their own work, and I am here to tell you that it worked for me.

Furthermore, if you plan to follow along with the code examples, and you can swing a dual-monitor work setup, I advise picking up the book’s Kindle edition. Even though the author kindly provided this blog with a physical review copy of the book, I appreciated being able to page through both it and my own, ever-growing ersatz Sand-Dancer source text at the same time with minimal eyesprain.

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Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, by Aaron Reed. Cool-looking book, eh? It's been out for a few weeks, and I haven't seen a review beyond short "this book is awesome!" posts. I finished reading it last week. I ought to write a review.

This book is awesome, and... hm. What is it? Hm. Okay, what isn't it?

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 by Aaron Reed

Aaron has not written a reference manual, nor a tutorial, nor has he duplicated the standard I7 manual. What he's written is example code -- except it's example code that covers the entire game-creation process, step by step, from the first room up to a finished game. By the time you reach the end, you will have had a tour of I7's core features. But it's all driven by "What do I add next to this game?"

This gives the reader an unusual progression of topics: first objects, then relations, descriptions, actions... Traditional programming constructs like if-statements and variables don't show up until halfway in. This may infuriate readers with a traditional programming background. But then, maybe not. The point of this approach is to explain constructs as they're needed, and you can frame out an awful lot of an Inform game without using a global variable. (Okay, "if" is more crucial. But the sorts of conditionals that are most common in I7 -- conditional text and rule conditions -- do show up earlier. They're just not presented in the context of old-school statement-by-statement imperative programming.)

To be sure, the standard I7 manual (which comes built-in with the I7 IDE) tries to use the same model. It, too, offers topics in the order that an I7 programmer might need them. However, without the underlying structure of the game-in-progress, that sequence can seem opaque. Aaron's sample game... well, pun not intended, but it provides the narrative for his manual.

More important: the game, Sand-dancer, is a good game. It is not the sort of example that exists to have one of everything in the manual. It is the sort of game that exists to make IF better. Aaron puts it together on your workbench. You can see the parts going in, and I don't mean rules and action constructs now; I mean character, background, voice, theme, and narrative drive. He explains what he's doing, and what each game element is for. He talks about story structure and shape of interactivity. He discusses what you have to do to get the player involved and what you have to do to put the player in control.

You'll come out the far side of this book with a clear view of what goes through an IF author's head. I won't go so far as to say this is a platform-neutral IF writer's guide. It's about Inform 7, and it spends most of its time teaching you to program in Inform, not to design IF games in general. But if you're an absolute newcomer to the field -- if you have no idea of what this medium is good for, or why anybody bothers -- you could get worse introductions than Aaron's book.

(Or you could play Sand-dancer right now, in your web browser. The source code is also available -- complete, or as of each chapter of the manual's construction process.)

My reviewer's license (nice wallet-sized card, laminated, hologram seal -- ask me sometime) says that I should pick some nits before I go. Well, the "tip" icon -- for highlighted "tip!" paragraphs, you know -- is a weird-looking black light bulb. That's not a nit. The nit is about the "caution" icon, which seems to be a dead alien vampire baby head. I guess those do make me cautious, so it makes some sense. Maybe?

Really, my only complaint is that it's not always clear when Aaron is teaching you his own personal I7 usage style.

For example -- sorry, I'm going to lapse into I7 technicalities for a moment -- Aaron claims that "instead" rules are always for specific situations, and "check" rules are for changing default behavior. Well, you can do it that way. Indeed, the built-in I7 manual makes the same claim -- but neither book digs into the reasons why that might be true. The fact is simply that an "instead" rule bypasses the "check" rules; so if there's a conflict, "instead" takes precedence. You will often want specific checks to take precedence over general ones, but not always. There's a lot of ways you could use this tool, and the book doesn't go into many of them. Is this a fault? Of course not; the book could be twice as long and not detail half of I7's subtleties. But I'd have appreciated a hand waved in the general direction.

Or too: The book leans heavily on the slightly-cutesy mnemonic BENT, for "bracket every notable thing". This is Aaron's proffered solution to the problem of under-implemented objects in games. Basically, you write each room description in such a way that the compiler nags you to implement all the objects (if only minimally). As a solution to a specific problem, it's fine. Is it the most urgent problem for students of IF, and is it the most comfortable solution? Is it what they need to be nagged about? I'm not convinced. But of course, I'm a crotchety old IF guy and my habits are set. Don't put me in front of students.

Really, any programming guide will teach you the author's programming style. Especially in a bactrian programming language (which I7 very much is).

(Eh? Bactrian, as in there's always (at least) two ways to hump your pack across the desert. As opposed to a serpentine programming language, in which there's just one way to slither through, no side limbs. Got it? Good.)

But now the reviewer's license is satisfied; it's cooling down from its red heat with faint pops and pings; I can go back to praising the book.

So yeah. Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, by Aaron Reed. Cool-looking book. Also worth reading.

Aaron Reed provided a free review copy of his book for The Gameshelf. It didn't actually arrive until after I posted this review, though. I bought my copy off B&N like a regular schlub.

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Friday linkdump: Three stories about cubes

IMG_1393.JPGOK, two of them are about dice.

Your Uncle Dudley’s Knucklebones appears to be the online gallery of a dice collector (with a casually Google-resistant identity). The mysterious blog contains only two posts, but the enormous latter entry contains many dozens of individual photographs.

The dice lay against a ruler on a white background, looking more like bullets in an autopsy, removed from their police report. The site offers no textual explanation of where any of the dice came from, or what purpose the more oddly specialized ones may have served. But if you’re like me, you’ll find delight in imagining the designs these little rolling-bones once played a part of. (Granted, the aim of the rather NSFW dice towards the end seem plain enough…)

I was interested to see that the first post, dedicated to the display of a single prototype 60-sided die design, mentions the fabbers at Shapeways.com. We’ve mentioned their contributions to the games-and-puzzles world before.

I have not read The Bones, but I probably should. It’s a collection of essays on dice edited by Will Hindmarch, and my fellow tabletop-game aficionados will recognize many of the collected author’s names — Costikyan, Kovalic, Selinker, the increasingly inevitable Wheaton, and many others. A print book is currently for sale, with an ebook edition in the works.

(Bonus aside: for a delightful coffee-table book about these most venerable gaming tools, Ricky Jay’s Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck, which pairs smart text on the history and culture of dice with truly beautiful and haunting photographs of our cubical friends by Rosamond Purcell. It’s still in print, and findable through the book-oracle of your choice.)

Finally, allow me to share with you the good news that God’s Number is 20.

With about 35 CPU-years of idle computer time donated by Google, a team of researchers has essentially solved every position of the Rubik’s Cube, and shown that no position requires more than twenty moves.

[ … ]

One may suppose God would use a much more efficient algorithm, one that always uses the shortest sequence of moves; this is known as God’s Algorithm. The number of moves this algorithm would take in the worst case is called God’s Number. At long last, God’s Number has been shown to be 20.

It took fifteen years after the introduction of the Cube to find the first position that provably requires twenty moves to solve; it is appropriate that fifteen years after that, we prove that twenty moves suffice for all positions.

I don’t pretend to fully understand exactly how this solution came about, despite the cogent explanations on that page, and its many interesting links to other Cube-fiends’ attempts at finding this elusive number, going all the way back to typewritten correspondence from 1981. But I am delighted to learn about such a vertiginous level of recreational puzzle solving — not solving the Cube, but solving a puzzle that’s made out of solutions to the Cube, a true meta-puzzle. All the better, I suppose, that I learn about it specifically because some folks have finally laid it safely to rest after nearly 30 years of shared effort. Less fundamentally frightening, that way.

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Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right

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

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

That, my friends, is a hook.

Here is another hook:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 2

9780810984233.jpgThis week I complete my writeup of the stuff I hoovered off the merch tables outside the very first PAX East expo hall last month. As I mentioned last time, almost everything I bought at this game expo was some kind of printed matter.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga

I don't understand how I haven't run into Jason Shiga's work before last month[1], where two of his self-published books lay among the Printed Works of Interest on display at the PAX IF Suite. One of them, a black-and-white, intriguingly dogeared comic book called Meanwhile, caught my attention immediately, and I was delighted to discover that a brand-new full-color hardcover edition had not only just been printed but was for sale at the expo. For my money, it is a best-case scenario of print-based interactive fiction.

First of all, it's great comics, mixing Shiga's delightfully chunky, cartoony art with a loopily recursive SF story, delivered through dialogue that's a charmingly correct mix of goofy and poignant. But what really defines the book is its game element: the panels are read not sequentially, but rather by following colored pipes that connect them. These pipes snake in all directions, often abruptly directing the reader onto a new page entirely. Crucially, panels often have more than one "outflow" pipe, and sometimes the pipes themselves branch; these represent decision points faced by the main character, leaving it up to the reader to decide which action he takes. (The story's first page serves as a friendly tutorial, setting the protagonist in an ice cream shop and having the reader decide his fate in the form of which flavor he chooses. Things rapidly get more interesting after that.)

So far, it sounds like an indie-comics homage to Choose Your Own Adventure books. And while Meanwhile most certainly is such an homage -- Shiga is on-record as a tremendous fan of that book series, and two of the hardcover's back-cover blurbs are from classic CYOA authors -- it transcends mere adaptation of form through a subtle twist of its own. The book's front matter contains, in small print, a brief developers' note from the author, which reads in part:

Once the outline of the story was structured, a computer algorithm was written to determine the most efficient method to transfer it to book form. However, the problem proved to be NP-complete. With the use of a V-opt heuristic algorithm running for 12 hours on an SGI machine, the solution was finally cracked in spring of 2000. It was another six months before layouts were finished, again with the aid of homebrew computer algorithms.

The author (who, helpfully, holds a degree in mathematics) is too humble here. Mechanical algorithms may have generated the book's complex graph of panels and pipes, but the final physical layout is clearly the result of painstaking creative work. As you play through the book, you start to realize that the various other panels on the pages you travel through, most inaccessible from your current path, don't share the page merely for efficiency's sake; they are meant to be seen, and read. You will see unusual symmetries on apparently unrelated pages that defy coincidence and demand explanation. Appropriate to the story's theme, these glimpsed path-fragments suggesting alternate pasts and possible futures start to feel like echoes of parallel timelines spookily flitting by, totally unreachable -- or are they?

I must also note that the book contains its own version of a text adventure game's "AMUSING" post-play segment. Once you reach the most complete ending (it's not explicitly marked as such, but the story is sufficiently well written that it you'll still know when you get there), there's not much left to do but start deconstructing the book yourself, flipping around freely and seeing what happens. Wonderfully, the book anticipates this, and responds appropriately. To say more would spoil it. All thinking playful persons should experience this book.

Incidentally, the other Jason Shiga book in the IF suite, Knock Knock, was a related but entirely different example of mad genius that I would also very much love to own. In this story, the player-character has three moves to deal with an unwelcome visitor to his tiny home. To make a move, the reader choses which of the many objects in the one-room apartment that the character should interact with. Every object is "useable", in the IF sense, at the end of every turn. The comic contains every possible four-page story that can results (all but one of which come to a disastrous end), and thus the whole work is the size of a phone book. Sadly, I am told that it is out of print. I strongly encourage this situation to amend itself.

Calvin & Hellen's Bogus Journey, by Calvin Wong and Hellen Jo

This minicomic by titular cartoonists Wong and Jo is the alleged instruction manual to a real but very silly downloadable Windows game. Standing alone, the book is a giggly parody in both format and content of the very earliest Nintendo game instruction booklets, such as the one that accompanied the original Super Mario Bros. (and therefore most every NES sold, at least in the US). It nails everything from the unsettling safety warnings at the start through the disconnectedly worded background story, arriving inevitably at the pages and pages of enemy-character depictions and understated micro-biographies that always constituted the bulk of the old manuals.

The downloadable game is by Derek Yu, who with both Spelunky and TIGSource under his belt is one of the world's most prolific and respected indie-game auteurs. So my discovery of this project feels like, I dunno, coming across an obscure pamphlet linking to a short-film adaptation of itself that Quentin Tarantino burped out on a lark and stuck on the web without further commentary. I love the world of indie games.

Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort

I have not yet read Montfort's 2003 treatise on the history and form of interactive fiction. Nor did I have the author autograph it at PAX, even though I bought it amidst a running gag of Jason Scott, selling the book at his table, repeatedly calling Nick over to sign other people's copies every time he tried to enter the nearby expo floor. But I couldn't just let it sit there unpurchased, especially since I did manage to last year read and enjoy Racing the Beam, the excellent examination of the Atari VCS's technology and societal impact co-authored by Montfort and follow game-studies scholar Ian Bogost.

Digression: It is a good time to be an independent ludologist in Boston. In the typical mold of a Cantabridgian techno-slacker of no particularly noteworthy academic pedigree, I frequently find myself knocking about the MIT campus for one thing or another, which increasingly involves interesting events in the vein of game studies. I run into Nick fairly often in that context, hence my not vying for an autograph. A one-man agitator of everything that has to do with creative new applications of digital writing, Nick hosts the Boston IF meetups in his office there, and he also organizes the Purple Blurb seminar series. He's also kindly sat twice for filmed interviews with me, though I've yet to actually apply any of this footage to a finished project. So, on that note, I'll wrap this column up and slink back to my Final Cut workstation.

[1] Not entirely literally true. I did run into a brief reference to Shiga in Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics, which I re-read last month as research for another column. McCloud pegged Shiga as an emerging talent when he wrote the book in 2000 - which, alas, was about the last time I myself paid deep and regular attention to the world of comics.


I empathized with Paul O'Brian's lament, in his own PAX writeup, of feeling like he'd been in suspended animation for years as far as interactive fiction went. That's quite similar to how I felt paging through Reinventing Comics for the first time in a decade, albeit from the other direction: this material was ten years old, yet still felt novel to me.

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What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 1

30887208_16f5396a71.jpgHere is one of my two funny PAX East 2010 stories: Near the start of the Friday-afternoon festivities, around the time that Zarf took the pensive-looking photo of me seen in his own PAX post, I bumped into Darius Kazemi, celebrated one-man social nexus of the Boston game-making community. We caught each other up on our respective projects, and after hearing about how I've been experimenting with writing longer, more-or-less regularly paced columns for The Gameshelf, he gave me a quest. I was to seek out a brand-new and ambitious print magazine called Kill Screen, the editors of which I could find in attendance that weekend.

The rest of Friday was then completely consumed by IF events, as others have already ably recorded. (Again, see Zarf's post for links aplenty.) When Saturday came, and after I'd succeeded in meeting my visiting Xbox Live pals for lunch, I pulled out my phone for some google-sleuthing, hoping to find where within the overcrowded PAX these magazine folks hid. A search for "kill screen" "pax east" brought me easily to this blog post by the magazine's managing editor, Chris Dahlen, where he noted that he'd be speaking on a panel in the IF hospitality suite at 7 PM. As it happened, I would be speaking on the same panel. Quest complete.

I am in possession of both video and commentary regarding that panel, but alas, my poor, broken, coffee-stained MacBook lacks the wherewithal to make the video postworthy. I expect FedEx to deliver its shiny white replacement presently, at which point I'll attempt to push my own thoughts on that panel and the whole "IF Outreach" topic into presentable shape.

Until then, allow me to review my PAX East 2010 Haul. With one exception[1], everything I purchased took the form of printed matter, and all of it came from either the Attract Mode folks or Jason Scott, both of whom had set up tables in "Band Land" amid all the musicians' merch. I took delighted surprise in finding myself coming home from a video game expo with only an armload of books and magazines, and hope you'll enjoy hearing about it.

In the interest of brevity (ha ha), I'll split this review across two posts, covering the magazines now and the books and other stuff later.

Kill Screen, edited by Jamin Brophy-Warren and Chris Dahlen

Square-bound, thick-leaved, and an all-around beautiful thing to see, hold, and flip though, Kill Screen succeeds for me because it brings to mind the forgotten video game magazines of my childhood that affected me so profoundly. More than a mere collection of articles, the editors of this work clearly know a good magazine works, the way that its mood changes as you advance through the pages, ordering the articles and other pieces to make its flow most varied, interesting to the person exploring it. The magazine's art style is outstanding and arresting, with emphasis on photography and spot art that complements the text, rather than literally illustrating it; there is surprisingly sparing use of game screenshots.

The stories within this premiere issue (labeled "Issue 0" on the spine) approach video games in a variety of ways, not a single one of which is that of a game review. There are, for example, personal stories: A Gen-Xer recounts his mental state while playing Resident Evil for the first time on a then-new original PlayStation, placing it against the backdrop of a lifetime of video gaming that began with the Atari VCS. Another writer describes the role that video games played -- and continue to play -- in his relationship with his younger brother.

Perhaps my favorite article is a feature story found dead center in the issue, on the unreleased game Air Traffic Manager, an ATC simulation that a lone developer has been toiling over for nearly a decade. The article's author artfully mixes in exposition on the state of AI programming in video games, based on interviews with other, more well known game developers and game-studies academics. In the end, he synthesizes this broad view with the specific challenges that the developer faces with his own game.

In the big picture, this article isn't that extraordinary; it's simply a piece of good, solid journalism, up to par with what appears in better newspapers every Sunday. But I couldn't tell you when I last read an article of this quality about digital games before, at least not one that was aimed to so wide an audience that it diluted itself while explaining its own vocabulary. I want to read more like it, please.

The whole magazine's package is broken up by humor pieces and cartoons, both nicely understated in their presentation. It wraps up with a funny and contemplative work of fiction masquerading as a walkthrough of an obscure game: a light-hearted sign-off appropriate after much deep thought on the topic of games, and again exactly the sort of thing I remember reading in the game magazines of yore.

The unavoidable downside is that Kill Screen is rather pricey. Twenty bucks for a single issue, or $75 for four, puts it out of reach of the casual reader -- including most kids, which therefore makes its story diverge from my narrative of buying the latest Electronic Games at the newsstand during my formative years. But I understand why it's priced the way it is; launching a print magazine in 2010 is a little crazy. (Managing Editor Chris Dahlen, in fact, participated in panel titled "The Death of Print" hours before I met him.)

But, you know what? If a team of creative people who care about improving games journalism must so thoroughly emulate the format and sensibilities of pre-21st-century magazines that they end up actually and literally printing a magazine on paper, then so be it. There is value just in making something like this happen, even if the circulation must remain relatively low, at least at first. It's still bringing work into the world that wouldn't have been there otherwise, and it a format that's at least a little less ephemeral than what's usual, these days. I plan on springing for a four-issue subscription, and hope that Kill Screen will persevere to fulfill it and then some.

The other stuff I bought took the form of more traditional zines: Black-and-white, hand-collated works that sell for a few dollars each. And here they are:

exp., by Mathew Kumar

Boy, did I like this. According to its preface, this zine represents the outcome of a challenge that the author gave himself: write something interesting about all the digital games that he happened to play over a five-week period. The outcome is a collection not of game reviews, or even of essays per se, but of a patchwork where each story adopts a form inspired by the game at hand.

So, Shadow Complex gets an overblown screenplay treatment, featuring dialog by two bemused gamers on the game's nonsensical plotting while evil cackling overlords listen in. Metal Gear Acid gets adapted into rules for a solitaire board game, including a sheet of playing pieces for cutting out and mounting onto cardboard, if the reader is so inclined.

Super Metroid receives representation in the zine as well, by way of a two-page treatise, mostly in illustration, on how the game's original SNES controller mapping could have been better. I infer from this that Kumar has a storied and comfortable history with this elder title, about which he's already said a lot; either way, this was a clever way to say something new about it.

These and several other short pieces all come together into a nice little meal of intelligent and clever game critique, bound together by the background narrative of one person experiencing and reacting to all these games in a short span of time. Love love love exp., and really hope to see more.

FORT90ZINE, edited (and largely written) by Matthew Hawkins

This one, I must admit, doesn't really play to my own tastes. A fanzine in the classic sense, it bursts with enthusiasm, less interested in critique than in showing you all this really cool stuff. But there are so few literal fanzines any more. An enthusiast who puts the effort into organizing, editing, and laying out their thoughts the way that Hawkins does automatically stands out as something remarkable against a background of noisy keyboard-bashing webchimps.

And for all my snooty snuffling: well, there actually is some really cool stuff in here. The first of the two extant issues, for example, contains a long interview with Rodney Greenblat as its centerpiece. In the second issue, Hawkins spends half the zine's pages touring us through his favorite neighborhoods in Manhattan, telling how video game culture differently infuses each of them. The latter lengthy piece could benefit from some tightening up, but it still tells me stories I hadn't heard before.

According to the Attract Mode website, a third issue of FORT90ZINE will be with us soon. The thing about enthusiasm-driven projects is that where there's some, there's more. And I am happy to see this particular project continue.

Update: Part 2 of this writeup is now online.

Image credit: Photgraph of a printing press by Miren Berasategi. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

[1] I also impulse-bought a set of Attract Mode's Calamity Annie buttons, since they were right there.

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Games in, on, and around our culture

Two quick links today.

  • A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families: That, families (and other households) that play with Lego. What do you call a two-by-two brick? Everybody calls it something. This article charts the nomenclature of four children.

...a "light saber" is a "light saber" no matter where you live or how much Lego you have.

(Thanks nancylebov for the link.)

  • One Book, Many Readings: A patient, detailed, gorgeous discussion of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Analyzes twelve of them in detail, including Edward Packard's original The Cave of Time. And when I say "analyzes", I mean several different data visualizations: the endings, the choice points, the flow graphs. Some are animated (Flash).

Another surprising change over time is the decline in the number of choices in the books. [...] I'd be very curious to know the reason for this progression toward linearity. Presumably the invisible hand was guiding this development, but whether the hunger was for less difficulty in the books or simply for something with more in the way of traditional storytelling is harder to unravel.

My only quibble with this essay is that white-on-black body text is a ravening monster that should have been exterminated at the end of the Dark Ages (1980-1984). But oh well.

(On the other hand -- who knew that Ellen Kushner wrote a CYOA book? Neat!)

(Thanks daringfireball for the link.)

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Free Online Game Design Course

Ian Schreiber is doing a free online game design course this summer. It's open to everyone, and you can either just follow along on the blog or actually sign up and get some additional material by email. He doesn't specifically mention the title in his post, but I'm sure the book he's using is the one he wrote recently with Brenda Brathwaite, Challenges for Game Designers: Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers.

So, if you've played many games and want to get an idea of what goes into designing them, check out the blog or sign up for the course.

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From the old to the new

Another in our series of game design documents. Jeff Howard, author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives (standard disclaimer: this book was published by the company I work for, and I acquired it, but I have no direct financial stake in the book), recently started blogging on the topics associated with his book. He just posted a game design document for a game that he's going to start building, called Arcana Manor, a "3D, first-person action-adventure/platforming game about leaping, swinging, and crawling through a surreal funhouse while battling demons." You can also check out his post where he talks about his initial idea for the game, and I find it interesting to see the modifications and refinements that take place just in the two weeks between the posts. I'm particularly interested in the fact that he's going to use tarot symbolism, with the possibility of wandering through rooms based on the major arcana. (I've had this minor fascination with card games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different ability, and I've been meaning to post here about that.)

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The library

They say you can blog about whatever you want, really. But I don't have a cat, and it's not Friday. So this is Irregular Holy Crap I Wish That Were My Life Wednedays.

Jay Walker's private library -- article by Steven Levy in Wired

The article is game-related only in that videogames, particularly adventure games, often have imposing libraries. Some of them even look this good. But in a game library, inevitably, there are only three or five books you can look at.

Just occasionally, reality is better.

I've been upgrading my own library, the past few days. But when I say "upgrading," I mean "I crammed in one more small bookshelf, plus a DVD rack, and then added a second lamp so that there'd be a little more light in the back." I didn't put in floating balconies and a Nuremberg Chronicle and a Sputnik. Nor is my apartment done up in a surprisingly harmonious mixture of wood inlay and fiber-optic glass.

Maybe next year.

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Games Canon from <em>Creating Games</em>

Disclaimer:I am an editor at A K Peters, the publisher of this book. Sales of this book help my company; thus, I benefit from the sale of this book. However, I don't get any kind of commission or bonus based on sales of this book, so the benefit is not a direct one. Besides being an employee of the company, I also worked on this book, so I am not necessarily unbiased about it.

9781568813059.jpgA K Peters is publishing a book called Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins. From the authors' website for the book (which contains a full TOC):

"This book is a comprehensive introduction to the process and theories of game development. It is written for academic games courses, professionals new to the games industry, and indie development teams. The book includes worksheets and exercises that cumulate in a game design document."
Basically, it talks about each area of video game development (much of which can be, and explicitly is in parts of the book, applied to board games), in enough detail so that you know what's going on in that area and are able to talk to the people who do work in that area. There's a lot of good stuff in there (I've read the whole book word-for-word, which, contrary to what might be generally believed, is not something an editor in technical publishing does for every book he or she works on), and I think it's something that might be interesting to people who read this blog, even if they never intend to develop a video game.

So, I wanted to put an excerpt up here, and I debated putting one of the meaty chapters of the book up, but I decided that the games canon that appears as an appendix of the book might actually be more interesting for the blog. So, here's the canon. I'll just note that this book is copyrighted by A K Peters, 2008, and used by permission (I asked the publisher). All rights reserved. The book should be out around Thanksgiving, and you can preorder it from the A K Peters website or from Amazon.


The Games Canon
(Appendix F from Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins)

Famous, infamous, radically innovative, critically acclaimed, or blockbuster successes, these are games everyone in the field should know about. They form the base of prior art. In any field, professionals work within a mainstream culture that references important previous work. These form the critical jargon (e.g., "this painting references Van Gogh's Starry Night") and the cultural context for new ideas.

Research is important in any field. It is how we build on the successes of the past and avoid their failures. You wouldn't try to write a book or create a car without first learning about the ones that preceded yours. When creating a game, you should research previous games. This list summarizes some of the most important games. It is intended as a jumping-off point for further research if a game sounds like one you'd like to make. Read through it to familiarize yourself with the previous work. No game designer would be taken seriously without at least passing familiarity with these titles, and most designers have studied several of them in depth.

For brevity, only the most critically acclaimed (or derided) and popular games are listed. In many cases, a previous game introduced a concept (e.g., Crystal Caverns predated Wolfenstein) but had a minor impact. These also include the games that designers often list as their major influences.

For additional cannon lists, see Lowder's book for an excellent recent review of major board games by famous game designers, boardgamegeek.com for up-to-date Internet ratings, and Wikipedia's best-selling (if not best) video game list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_video_games.

Minicanon

The minicanon contains the bare minimum set of games that you should be familiar with to appreciate the examples in this book and start making your own games. A games course should offer these or equivalents to students at a minimum, and anyone serious about games should own them. Most of these games are explained in more depth in the following sections and referenced throughout the text (see the index for references). Note that these aren't necessarily the absolute best games in their class, according to one specific design criterion, but they are likely the most widely acclaimed, easiest to acquire, and successful.

  • Carcassonne by Klaus-Juergen Wrede is a board game that features tile-laying and semicooperative mechanics. It has multiple ways of earning points, relatively low variance, and deep strategy and is supported by a series of expansions and alternative rule sets.

  • Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber is a board game with trading and building mechanics. Settlers and Carcassonne cover most of the mechanics found in modern strategic German board games and clarify the differences in mechanics and business models that distinguish them from ancient games and twentieth-century American games. They have also both successfully been converted to Xbox 360 video games. Puerto Rico is a good substitute for Settlers and features similar mechanics and theme but more advanced play and better balance.

  • Chess is representative of ancient strategy games. It is played internationally from casual to tournament levels and features rich emergent play. Almost everyone is immediately familiar with the basics of the game, and the knight and king playing pieces are challenged only by the six-sided die for the iconic status as the symbol of gaming in general.

  • Go beats chess in complexity (due to the large board), age, and elegance (there are only two rules to the game!). Although less popular in America than chess, many classic mechanics and strategies arise directly from the rules of go, including encirclement, flanking, captures, and variable board size.

  • Poker is a gambling card game that rivals all other games in terms of tournament popularity and purse size. It is exemplary as a classic card game and relies almost exclusively on bidding mechanics, which can be studied in depth through the many variants on this game. Poker is familiar to most gamers and requires only a standard deck of cards to play.

  • StarCraft, or any other major RTS/TBS video game (e.g., Warcraft, Civilization, Populous, Master of Orion, Empire Earth), is a requirement for any game developer. We have a slight preference for the Age of Empires series, which combines some modern RTS UI conventions and elements of casual gameplay to make the games more accessible to new players (and also has a free demo of the latest version). These play like a board game but with mechanics so complex that you need a computer to resolve them, nicely showing the transition from strategy to tabletop wargame to computer game. The character-building RPG mechanics made famous by Diablo and Dungeons & Dragons all appear in RTS games, but the "character" is the army or civilization. Mechanics are at the forefront of RTS games, and these are a celebration of complexity.

  • Half-Life 2 stands out among FPS games. It is exemplary as a shooter, and the engine supports the other popular shooters Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, but HL2 also pushes farther toward storytelling than any other FPS and is among the most technically sophisticated of its time in terms of technology and Internet distribution business model. We believe that the original Half-Life had a better quality balance (HL2's graphics and physics advanced substantially, but the puzzles, mechanics, and story were at the same level as HL1) but believe that new gamers would appreciate HL2 more because they are accustomed to modern graphics and audio.

  • Tetris is iconic as a puzzle and casual game, and decades after its introduction is still considered the standard to meet. The elegant gameplay, tremendous commercial success, and geometric twist on dominoes meets Connect Four make this game a classic. Bejeweled, Hexen, Maki, and other popular arcade puzzle games are directly inspired by Tetris.

  • Guitar Hero and its sequels were neither the first rhythm games nor the first guitar games, but they took the genre to perhaps its natural acme. Guitar Hero 2 and Rock Band (by the same developer, Harmonix, and the moral sequel to GH2) are the best of the series. By combining a physical prop with popular music, these games offer broad casual gamer appeal and have consistently been among the best sellers every year since their introduction. Reasonable substitutes are Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Karaoke Revolution, PaRappa the Rapper, and Guitar Freaks, although these do not have the same mass appeal.

  • Super Mario Bros. and its many sequels (e.g., Mario 64, Super Mario 3, Super Mario Galaxy) stand out as best-of-breed platformers. These have tight arcade controls for hardcore gamers combined with cartoony content for casual players. They are polished to a shine by Nintendo's development team and feature a Japanese experiential aesthetic that is still grounded enough for mainstream Western audiences. The Mario games are consistently among the best-selling games of all time, and Mario is probably the most recognizable (and longest lived) video game character—the video game equivalent of Mickey Mouse. As with most of Nintendo's most popular games, the Mario games were designed by Shigeru Miyamoto.

  • The Sims 2 and its sequels and expansions are the best of breed (and best-selling) of the god game/pet-raising genre games. These feature most of the mechanical complexity of an RTS, but that complexity is buried behind fiction so compelling that the player's mental model invariably aligns with the artificial characters and not the mechanics. The Sims series is often considered the best-selling video game of all time, taking sequels and expansion packs into account. The game was designed by industry veteran Will Wright, who dedicated it to the memory of Dan Bunten, author of M.U.L.E.

  • Indigo Prophecy is deeply flawed in its action sequences, and the plot goes haywire halfway through the game, yet it is one of the best examples of the potential for interactive fiction. This arcane mystery game features characters that the player will really empathize with and scenes that inspire true anxiety, fear, desire, and awe. Although few narrative games can touch Indigo Prophecy, some other well-respected narrative games include Dreamfall and Jade Empire. The older Lucas Arts games (many by Tim Schafer and with writing by Orson Scott Card) feature rich characterization, humor, and fantastic scenes but only occasionally gripping narratives: The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and The Dig.

(Read the rest of the games canon, which lists games by category.)

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Noteworthy games I have not played

I have not played Agricola due to its length - it takes at least a couple of hours, and I haven't been able to spare that for games lately. (Please don't ask how many half-hour games of Race for the Galaxy I've burned through lately.) During the time I have been not playing it, though, it's managed to knock Puerto Rico from the number-one spot on Board Game Geek's rankings. I discovered this today, and it's a real shocker; "PR" has been the top game for the several years I've known about that website.

As I understand it, the main conceit of Agricola is that it ships with around 300 cards, each of which alter the game rules in some way - but only a handful of these cards appear during any single game. By itself, it sounds like a gimmicky way to tap up replay value (I mean, that's how CCGs work, right?) but I'm informed that it's actually pretty cool. I look forward to trying it myself, sometime.


I have not played Dwarf Fortress because I get to the first screen where I can actually make something happen, and then I sit there going duhhhr. I think that fully reading through the documentation and figuring out all the keystroke commands would take at least as long as a game of Agricola. Its UI is of the Nethack / Angband lineage, complete with graphics built entirely out of animated text characters, and learning to play one of those properly is practically like learning a new programming language.


But I really want to play it someday, because its two game modes include a Rockstar-style sandbox game and a Maxis-style simulation game, both set in ye olde Tolkeinesque fantasy world. The simulation game has you commanding a gaggle of dwarves to construct and maintain the titular fortress, and has a reputation for usually ending in not just total disaster, but hilarious disaster. Indeed, I heard of the game by reading friends' oh-my-god-you-guys blog posts telling the story about how their fortress ran out of alcohol and then burned down and now their last starving dwarf has gone insane and is wandering the woods attacking elk with his fists or whatnot.

For now, though, I can only describe it as a vast piece of work that's crying out for a tutorial mode.


I have not played Freeway Warrior: Highway Holocaust because... well, it's a bit silly, isn't it. Here's another digitized version of a Joe Dever-authored solitaire RPG book from the 1980s; we've linked to a digital version of his "Lone Wolf" series before. This book was the start of Dever's attempt to turn the game mechanics he developed for that series towards a Mad Max theme.


To play properly, you're meant to do up a full-on character sheet for your dude. In its original format, this was printed on one of the back pages, and you could pencil it up all you wanted. Now you can print it out in order to carefully manage your character's inventory, hit points, and food rations. You can even print out the random-number page that you're supposed to close your eyes and poke at, in lieu of die-rolling, in order to resolve combat and other chancy situations that pop up during the story. But I find it just as satisfying to click through the pages and enjoy the perfectly nostalgic text, which contain both Dever's writing style (which I enjoyed as a tyke) and the undiluted 1980s imminent-nuclear-holocaust gloom.

I was impressed to find a simple number puzzle in the story, whose solution was the page to which you were to turn - that's something I don't remember encountering during any other period work. So, yes, despite the title of this post I must admit to kinda-sorta playing this game. So that's as fine a note as any to go out on.

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Quick Links (Spring Cleaning Edition)

Not so much with the posting lately; a new (game-related!) project that I can't talk much about yet has sprouted in my middle of my life like a delicious and fecund springtime mushroom. You see what it's done to my sense of metaphor? You don't want to see my writing right now, anyway.

But for now, it's time to close some tabs!


The Waxy.org fellow got his hands on an ancient hard drive from the offices of Infocom, the long-defunct (but Cambridge-based!) publishers of the most well-known text adventure games in the 1980s. He shares some details from "the best parts", including design notes and swirling, dramatic internal emails regarding a never-released sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


Because this received so many links from more timely game-news blogs (cough), a lot of the Infocom alums mentioned in the story showed up in the attached comment thread to flesh out the details personally, and one of them's apparently been move to pen his own view of the saga for Wired magazine. (See? There is an advantage in waiting a week to link to it. Mm-hmm.)


Lost Cities is out for XBox 360 now (as a US$10 download), and here's a video (using some whackjob MS-proprietary format, sorry) about the team adapting the tabletop party game Wits & Wagers for the platform. Word on the street that the numba-one game on Microsoft's "Live Arcade" downloadable-game service is not any sort of action-fighty game, but Uno, which has put away around 1.5 million copies through it.


So, yes, Microsoft has thrown down and put forward this console as embracing the world of tabletop games that are more obscure to American audiences than Risk. The examples I've gotten to see so far have been fairly decent and faithful adaptations, so I cautiously salute this.


Archaeologists in Iran have indentified some grid-shaped rock carvings on Khark Island as being the play surface of a millenia-old board game. No word on what kind of game it was, though the article seems to imply that it could be some relative of Backgammon. No additional commentary from the original designers this time, sadly. Anyway, an interesting antidote to the last time Iran showed up in this blog.
Andrew at Grand Text Auto describes another interesting never-was game from the 1980s, an Atari VCS game where you had to program an on-screen robot to complete tasks, such as navigating a maze. Yes, it looks like a totally bomb-ass cool version of Secret Collect. I would have loved this. Apparently the original designer is releasing some homemade cartridges with the game software on it; see article for details.
Via Play This Thing, we see that several of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf pick-a-path adventure game books from the 1980s have become free downloads. I played and enjoyed these as a kid, and as Greg notes in that post, they're an important evolutionary step in the development of single-player role-playing experiences, even though nobody(?) is publishing books like them nowadays.

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Maze: beautiful, inspirational, unsolvable

At a local gathering of friends the other day, the classic puzzle book Maze, by Christopher Manson, came up in conversation. Many, myself included, recalled encountering it not too long after its original 1985 publication date. At the time, we all found it a fascinating artifact, though a completely inscrutable puzzle.

The book is still for sale, as it turns out, and there's also an online, hypertext version of the book you can wander through freely. (I note that the website appears to reside among the archives of an early electronic-publishing venture, and has remained unmodified since the mid-1990s. Sadly, the scanned illustrations are formatted to fit the relatively dinky computer displays of that era, resulting in much of the fine detail getting lost. I suppose I should encourage you to go buy the book, if you find them sufficiently intriguing.)

I should correct myself and call the book semi-scrutable, at least. It represents a labyrinth of connected chambers, you see, where each page features a haunting and evocative illustration of one room, trimmed with a short bit of text where the book's mysterious narrator leads a group of squabbling explorers through. The first part of the book's puzzle, then, is simply to find a path that takes you from the entrance to the maze's center and back in 16 steps. The harder part involves teasing the text of a riddle out of all the depicted stuff that lay along this route. And this is where most mortals get stopped, finding themselves with a pile of stuff and no clues.

After I returned home that evening, it occurred to me that I probably hadn't thought much about Maze since the ascent of Wikipedia, and surely it spelled out the solution. Why, yes. And what a solution! It's amusing I can look at this more than 20 years after the book's original publication and tell you why this would get razzed by any of the hardcore puzzle people I know today.

Granted, it was supposed to be very hard, because there was a cash-money prize for the first correct response. But the Wikipedia article implies that they overdid it, since the publishers extended the deadline at least once, and it's unclear if any claim was ever made. And no wonder, really; the solution demands you selectively perform wordplay on picture and text elements along the path, but gives you no clues as to which elements are important, and what should be done with them.

For example (and I'm about to get a little spoilery here) on this page, it happens that you're supposed to get a word by taking two picture elements and anagramming them together. But for all you know, maybe you combine the A with BELL and perform a sound-alike wordplay to get ABLE. Or perhaps the word is simply BELL, after all. Or a dozen other things suggested by the image. They all seem equally right - which is to say, none especially so.

Carry this feeling over the path's 16 pages, and I assert you've got an utterly unsolvable combinatorial explosion. I would be quite interested to learn of integral clues I'm overlooking, though, or to hear about someone who solved the book without any hints! Until then, I must conclude that for all the book's beauty - and it is quite a lovely thing to flip through - as a puzzle, it would get booed off the stage at the MIT mystery hunt.

More important than its puzzle, however, is the book's legacy. Without a doubt, the book left a lasting inspiration to many, stoking a hunger to try solving more baroque and beautiful puzzles, even if that means having to create them first. You can see echoes of Maze in art-heavy digital adventures such as Myst. In fact, the stimulus for this group recollection among friends was a new puzzle designed with Maze in mind, by Gameshelf pal Andrew Plotkin. I have it on good authority that it was cracked by dedicated solvers within a day.

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Computer Role-Playing Games

Since this is my first post, a bit of an introduction. My name is Kevin Jackson-Mead, and you can see my lovely face in Gameshelf Episode 1 (playing Shadows over Camelot) and Gameshelf Episode 3 (playing Gnostica). My current favorite game is usually one that I have recently learned, but right now it's Strange Synergy, an old favorite (anyone want to play?). By day, I am an editor at a book publisher where I am responsible for, among other things, books on computer game development.

Some of the books may be interesting to this audience, but I don't want want to come on here and plug my books all the time. However, a book that just came out is, I think, particularly relevant, so I'll get the plugging out of the way with my first post.


I would imagine that the genre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) is known to most people reading this, but the basic idea is tabletop role playing (like Dungeons & Dragons) brought to the computer desktop (or console). My introduction to this genre was via my uncle, who played the Ultima games. I only watched him play a little bit, and I never ended up playing the Ultima games, but I do remember that one of the games came with a cloth map and a metal ankh. I now know that this was Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which is widely considered to be the best in the series and even one of the best computer games ever.

The first CRPG that I played on my own computer (Commodore 64) was Phantasie. I was completely thrilled with all of the stats, figuring out what spells my wizards and priests could get at what level, the Tolkienesque theme, the little noises during combat—pretty much everything about the game. I ended up playing all three games in the series. I later played Pool of Radiance, the first of SSI's "Gold Box" games. I made lots of maps on graph paper for that game, and it was also a magical experience for me. Perhaps my favorite part of the game was the combat, which was a turn-based combat that had the feel of combat played out on a tabletop with miniatures. I played at least six of these "Gold Box" games, perhaps the favorite of which was the second one, Curse of the Azure Bonds (yes, I realize now that starting a story with the main charcater(s) having amnesia is hackneyed, but it enthralled my thirteen-year-old self).

Over the years, I dabbled with a few other CRPGs, but I never got into any as much as I did these first ones. Fast forward to Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games (I'll spare you the story of how this book came to be, but I will point out that the cover art is by Clyde Caldwell, renowned fantasy artists whose art graced some of the "Gold Box" games). In working on this book, I was introduced to my old friends Phantasie and Pool of Radiance, and I was introduced to many new friends. The book tells the history of the genre, starting with the earliest games and going right through to the present day. It talks about what was good and not so good about these games, what design decisions were made and how these affected gameplay, and how these games influenced later games.

It got me excited about the genre again. And so when I saw a mini review of a shareware computer role-playing game recently, I decided to give it a whirl. The game is Excelsior Phase One: Lysandia, originally published in 1993. You play a fixer, a member of a group whose aim is to keep time in order, or something. You're sent to this land where there has been some kind of problem detected. That frame story doesn't matter much once the game gets started, however; you're basically in a standard swords-and-sorcery game.

It is very much in the style of the Ultima games, and it is an homage to them. I found it challenging while still being doable, although I admit to checking out the walkthrough for a few things here or there—although only once for something other than as an alternative to taking notes. Because you're going to have to take a lot of notes in this game. There are many different quests, and you get little bits of information from talking to people scattered throughout the land. A piece of information, however, doesn't make sense until you have gotten to a certain point in a particular quest, so you either need to have a good memory or take many notes (or cheat). The nice thing about all of these quests is that they are not linear, so that if you get stuck on one quest, you can switch to working on another quest. There's lots of running around the map for some of the quests, but I found that, after a while, the monsters you encounter are no longer a problem, so it's simply a matter of the time it takes.

I made a tank of a character (a giant warrior), and after suffering through a few levels of barely scraping together enough money to get healed and eat, I became powerful enough to survive for a while, and then I discovered a few key spells (mostly the healing spells) that a warrior can cast. After that, it became pretty easy to survive just about anything (I did occasionally get killed when I would get hit by a sleep spell and then get pounded to death while I blissfully snoozed).

I've never really reviewed a computer game before like this, so I'm sure I'm botching this somewhat. Let me just say that this is an extremely enjoyable game, and I highly recommend it if you're at all a fan of old-school CRPGs, especially the Ultima series. There's a sequel, too, called Excelsior Phase Two: Errondor, although I haven't played that one yet.

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