Search Results for: if

The irritating case of Hadean Lands pricing on Steam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many factors collide here.

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

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

Comments? Opinions?

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IF awards and how we think about them

We just got a new issue of SPAG. (The Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games, a long-historied zine of the IF community. It's old enough that it was originally "Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games" because we thought IF might die out or something. 1994, right?)

I want to respond to Ted Casaubon's article, "Safeguarding Your IF Voting From Animal Attack". The author looks at our IF voting traditions (IFComp and the XYZZY Awards) and puts them in context with last year's furor around the Hugos, the (much more famous) annual awards of the science fiction and fantasy community.

This is an excellent article overall. Ted's comparison is absolutely one that weighed on my mind last year, and still does today. The 2016 Hugo nominations were last month, and XYZZY nominations just started. Does the videogame world have a radical-angry faction analogous to the Sad/Rabid Puppies? Why yes. So it could happen here and we should worry about that. The article talks about that possibility and it does a good job.

However, I think the article skates over the heart of the issue. Let me quote from the concluding paragraph:

The voting systems described above are all intended to ensure that a minority bloc doesn’t thwart the will of the majority. But the reality is that a majority voting bloc could be just as harmful to the integrity of an IF award, if it was the result of a raid on the polls from outside the community. The only real way to prevent that would be to limit who gets to vote.

(-- Ted Casaubon, "Safeguarding Your IF Voting From Animal Attack", SPAG#63, 11 April 2016)

(Yeah, look at me footnoting.)

Here's the thing: the IFComp, the XYZZYs, and the Hugos are all popularity contests. That's fundamentally what they are. When you talk about ways "to prevent that" -- prevent the majority from winning your popularity contest -- you've made some deep conceptual mistake.

And yet, it's not a simple mistake. Ted is correct to note the 2012 incident in which an unguarded blog post flooded the XYZZY noms with votes for a single entry. That was a problem, and the admins dealt with it (correctly in my view) by disregarding those votes. So how does that make sense? Is that a case of ignoring the majority?

Ted's article describes this in terms of "bloc voting" -- which was also the common diagnosis of last year's Hugo problems. If you look back at Dan Fabulich's blog post, he also talks about "the voting block". But he also says:

The XYZZY Awards are normally decided by a close knit community of interactive fiction enthusiasts; more than a hundred votes is a good turnout for XYZZY. ... But this year, our votes completely overwhelmed the entire interactive fiction community.

(-- Dan Fabulich, "We Almost Flooded the XYZZY Ballot Box", 5 March 2012)

This is not a distinction about tactical voting, but about community self-definition -- "our votes" versus "community votes". And this is what I want to step back and consider.


The Hugo situation was not primarily a case of outsiders flooding the ballot box. The leaders in the Sad/Rabid Puppy groups are well-known SF authors and regulars at SF fan conventions. (The least-known, Ted "Rabid" Beale, is still a writer sufficiently established to join, run for president of, and then get thrown out of the SF Writers of America.)

It is true that Puppy campaigning must have brought in votes from people who would not otherwise have purchased a Hugo voting membership. It is also true that the counter-reaction also brought in votes on the other side. For example, me! I cast a Hugo vote for the first time in probably fifteen years.

But am I an outsider? I hope nobody would say that. I'm a convention regular too; I've been going to East Coast regional cons (Balticon, Philcon, Arisia, Boskone) since high school. I've been to several Worldcons, and every Worldcon attendee can cast a Hugo ballot. I just haven't bothered very often. The Puppy situation pulled me back in.

So, while 2015 Hugo voting hit record levels, it's not obvious that much of it came from people who never read SF. My guess (although I have no statistics) is that most of the increase came from SF readers and folks enmeshed in fandom who suddenly cared a whole lot more about the Hugos than usual. That is a good thing. When we talk about a problem in the Hugo voting, we're not talking about that.

Nor are we talking about the fact that the avalanche was tipped off by a couple of racist, homophobic right-wing conspiracy theorists, plus a bunch of other conspiracy theorists who thought that the first guys were fine travelling companions, and then their toxic views gained currency across a stretch of the fandom landscape. That is a problem -- a big problem -- but it's not a voting problem per se.

No, the voting problem is a hole in the Hugo first-round (nomination) rules, which allowed a minority of the voters (30% if I recall the estimates) to completely control most of the voting categories. Which they did, and filled them with entries that the majority (70%) thought were junk. I don't mean people saying "enh, not my favorite story of the year"; I mean people saying "not in the top ten, not in the top twenty, not worth being mentioned on this ballot". Result: predictable collapse in the second round.

(Note: the particular form of the collapse followed from the Hugo rules, which allow the voters to select "no award in this category" as the winner. This is really just a detail, however. Despite a great effort from the Puppy supporters to say otherwise, the use of "no award" was a response to the problem described above, not a problem in itself. If it hadn't been that, it would have been something else.)

What was the hole in the rules? Bloc voting, or, more specifically, bloc nominating. I think this is a problem in most open-nomination voting systems. It's like this:

  • If 100 people with a range of opinions name their five favorite things, they'll all give different lists. But with a lot of overlap. The top thing will be listed maybe 20 times, the next maybe 15 times, the next maybe 12 times. I'd call it a normal distribution, except that's about single-axis variables, but you get the idea -- a bunch of small heaps piled up to make a larger, fuzzy heap with a peak.
  • If 30 people name five things, but they all agree to name the same list, then the top thing will be listed 30 times.
  • 30 beats 20. The 30% controls nominations. Kaboom, as described above.

The implicit assumption of the open-nominations system is that the fuzzy top zone of the heap is acceptable to most of the voters. Your favorite thing may not be the top nominee, but some of your top five are probably in the list. And if everybody votes their own opinions, it's a pretty good system for doing that.

Obviously it's not perfect. If there's a completely bimodal split, the minority is probably hosed. That is, if 70% of the voters only like green things, and 30% of the voters only like purple things, purple gets shut out. You can say that's what majority voting means -- which is true, although perhaps less true in the nominations round. (Should one or two purple nominees show up in the top five?) But in any case this is an extreme edge case; not what you would expect from realistic, honest votes.


So are the open nominations of the XYZZYs (in progress now!) vulnerable to this sort of collective minority action? Sure. No question about it.

This is compounded by the notion of votes who really are coming from outside "the community". That's what happened in 2012. Choice Of Games has a larger internet following than the XYZZY community; they (inadvertantly) swamped it. You could imagine some Youtube streamer or other net celebrity telling their followers "go to this web site and vote for this game!" Then there would be thousands or tens of thousands of XYZZY nominations for it, and what does that mean?

Ted's article (remember Ted's article? This post is a response to Ted's article, at least it was before it hit 1500 words and climbing):

The enthusiastic ChoiceScript supporters were seen as invaders by the IF community in the 2011 XYZZYs, but with Creatures Such as We taking second place in the 2014 Comp and Scarlet Sails taking 7th in 2015, they probably wouldn’t be considered such outsiders today.

But this is the wrong way to look at it. The same flood of blog-spawned votes for an Inform game would have been equally a problem. The point of the XYZZYs, if there is a point, is to discern what the IF community thinks is best in IF this year. And if "the IF community" is a circularly-defined thing of shifting and argumentative boundaries, it is still a thing. Or else the awards stop being interesting.

A couple of years ago I read an article about the Billboard hip-hop charts. Everything in it sounded familiar -- and this was before Gamergate and Puppies appeared on the scene. It wasn't about malicious or coordinated vote-rigging; it was about the inherent fuzziness of self-defined community.

Ideally, any effective genre chart—be it R&B, Latin, country, even alt-rock—doesn’t just track a particular strain of music, which can be marked by ever-changing boundaries and ultimately impossible to define. It’s meant to track an audience. This is a subtle but vital difference. If an R&B chart tries to cover whatever might be termed R&B music, you get into the subjective, slippery business of determining what, or who, is “black enough” for the chart.

(-- Chris Molanphy, "I Know You Got Soul: The Trouble With Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Chart", Pitchfork, 14 April 2014)

If I may sum up: the R&B/hip-hop charts were interesting when they measured what the core hip-hop audience was listening to. In the 80s and 90s that meant sales at stores where the fans -- and artists! -- were buying; it meant playlists on hip-hop radio stations. That's how you knew where the genre was, what was new and hot and (perhaps) about to cross over to the mainstream.

But now it's Internet time. What's a music store? What's a radio station? What do you even measure? Well, you measure digital downloads; but that's everybody, not R&B fans. And so you get a chart which shows, not the top hip-hop songs, but the top songs which are hip-hop. It tells you nothing about the genre, only about how you label songs. "Crossover hits" become meaningless.

Our community awards are about what's hot in IF -- what we, the fans and (presumed) literate critics of IF, think is new and good. We do that by polling our community! And, yes, excluding everybody else from the poll. You can say the same of the Hugos: they're supposed to measure what sci-fi fandom, the widest-read and most discriminating nerds, say is best.

That's why the raw cry of "include more voters!" is a problem. Take that to its limit: you poll every gamer (or every reader). Then your awards go to the most popular game which can be called IF. Or the best-selling book which looks like SF/fantasy. But that's boring! Best-seller charts are easy to find. Robert Jordan and his literary successors sell in truckloads. You go to the Hugo lists to find out if those books are any good.

(Spoiler: Robert Jordan has been nominated for Best Novel once. Lois Bujold has been nominated ten times and won four times. No, that doesn't define quality, but at least it tells you what fandom likes.)


So we want to keep voting inside "the community". But we also want the community to be open to newcomers. Um...

(Hugo voting is limited to Worldcon members; anybody can become a voting Worldcon member for $50. Now you understand the conflicting imperatives between those two facts.)

The IF world has the great advantage of being small, informal, and not very important. The XYZZY and IFComp admins retain the right to exclude votes (or works) at their discretion. That works because we know Sam and Jason; they're open and flexible about their decisions; the discussions remain personal. The Hugos are more ponderous and (necessarily) more legalistic.

But, in both cases, one cannot determine right action through rigid rules. You have to know what's going on in the community. To define the community, even, you have to know what's going on. (Circular, like I said.)

Let me quote one more bit from Ted's article:

[...] last year’s comp saw rumblings of the fact, or perhaps coincidence, that every Twine game in the 2015 comp, without exception, received two 1/10 votes.

As I said in the linked thread, that sounds about right to me! There are people in the IF world who like parser games more than choice-based games; our awards should reflect that. It doesn't surprise me that a couple of those folks feel so strongly that they'd one-star every Twine game. Those votes are coming from inside the house.

If fifty voters were doing that, it would indicate a problem. Not because there's a hard-line limit (more than 25 votes is a bloc?) -- but because it doesn't reflect what I see and hear on the forums. There just isn't that much negativity. So I would want the admins to look into where votes were coming from; I would check out non-IF gamer sites for organized opposition.

In between two and fifty... judgement call. It's contextual. It's all contextual.

Of course, this is where the "conspiracy theorist" element rears up. If what you see in the community absolutely contradicts what I see -- say, if you believe that one publisher gives marching orders to the majority of Hugo voters -- then we will never come to terms about what is right action.


In the end, we're talking about three distinct-but-enmeshed problems:

  • A two-stage voting process with open nominations is mechanically vulnerable.

  • Defining the boundaries of your voter pool is both absolutely necessary and necessarily subjective.

  • Awards or no awards, there is a toxic subculture within both the gaming and sci-fi fan communities.

On the third problem, I have nothing smarter to say than any of the rest of us.

On the second, I try to participate in the process. I trust that the IF community can grow organically without losing itself. It's worked so far, and it's worked by communicating across boundaries.

As for the first... IFComp doesn't have open nominations in the sense that we're talking about. (But it has open submissions, and we can't dismiss the idea of a voting bloc pushing its own entrants.)

In the XYZZYs, the discretion of the IF award organizers should serve. We hope. One day it won't, but I think that will be when the IF field is too large for personal ties to hold it together -- and that will a success in its own right.

On that subject, I should note that the Hugo rule change proposal is in progress but has yet to be adopted. For obvious reasons, the Hugo rules are hard to change. If the proposal is ratified this summer, it will be adopted next year.

Therefore, this year's Hugos may well be as much of a mess as last year's. Or not! Or a different mess! We hear that first-round voting ran at twice the volume of last year, but what do these new (or returning) voters want? If there are two teams -- to oversimplify -- which team are they on? Tune in on the 26th to find out, I guess.

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More progress towards Hadean Lands on Steam

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes from GDC

I could have titled this post "Survived GDC!" Maybe even "Surviving GDC," since I've worked up some tips about the experience. But before I get there...

GDC was great. Had a blast! Involving no literal explosions! So a big win all around.

I got to see a whole lot of people. If I start listing names it'll get boring and I'll forget some anyway. So I'll just note that I met Alexis Kennedy (of FailBetter Games) and Jeff Vogel (of Spiderweb Software). Among lots of others. And of course even more people that I know from the IF world or the game conference circuit and was happy to see again.

Excellent talks:

  • Narrative Innovation Showcase (lightning showcase by many designers, assembled by Clara Fernández-Vara and Matthew Weise).
  • Meg Jayanth on NPCs in 80 Days. (Here's a related talk she gave at Practice last year -- Vimeo.)
  • Alexis Kennedy on narrative in Sunless Sea, and also boozing it up on stage.
  • Sam Barlow on Her Story.
  • Adam and Rebekah Saltsman talking about how they decide what games to develop at their indie studio.
  • Jane Ng on the art design and implementation of Firewatch.
  • The development of the Hitman and Tomb Raider franchises into Hitman Go and Tomb Raider Go.
  • Tetsuya Mizuguchi looking back on 15 years of Rez.
  • I didn't even attend any of the Friday talks, such as the extremely interesting open-source release of Inkle's game engine.

I am not going to do per-talk writeups, but you can read Emily's posts (Mon, Tue/Wed, Thu/Fri). Also Aaron Reed's post.

Then there was the show floor. Enough corporate wealth on display to make the most hardened Wall Street analyst weep. After my first walkthrough, I tweeted:

Getting all my GDC sizzletakes out of the way up front: There are some great games. But I'm still not buying an Xbox or PS4. And VR is bunk. (@zarfeblong)

Yes, that's snarky (even for twitter-compressed punditry) but I meant it. Not that VR is vapor -- there were plenty of functional devices on demo. But the amount of... stuff... invested in that VR tech is really absurd. Feature-adds like air movement and AR; middleware and tools; colleges offering VR training; every single game bragging about VR support. You know most of it will fail. The whole point of industry expos is to show off products most of which will fail. The only question is whether it will all fail.

I suspect it will all fail. I say that because it provides the maximum humor value if I'm right. Go on, tell me you have a better metric.

Anyhow, on the fringes of the Unreal/Oculus/Sony/Unity/Microsoft/Amazon hellscape, one could find the good stuff:

And, of course, the most exciting demo -- don't judge me -- the live preview of Cyan's Obduction. It got a trailer a couple of weeks ago, but only GDC attendees have gotten a chance to wander around the opening area. It looks great! It's very definitely a Cyan game: strange empty landscape, machines, staticky holograms. But up to modern graphical standards, of course. (Cyan got space in Unreal's expo booth because they make the engine look good.) I wore my Myst Online shirt, shook hands with a couple of Cyan folks, and felt generally elevated about the coming game.

I want to talk about the GDC experience, because the conference is big, scary, expensive, and not for everybody. My first GDC was four years ago. I had a pretty good time... but it wasn't worth my time and effort. This year was my second GDC and it was absolutely worth my time and effort. The difference is important.

Four years ago, the talks were okay. I had the "summits and tutorials" pass -- intermediate between the indie pass (cheapish) and the full-week pass (no way unless your company picks up the tab). I went to a bunch of talks, and they were pretty cool, but they weren't about the most interesting games or the most interesting authors out there. The show floor had the IGF showcase, but nothing else relevant to my life.

This year, the narrative track was on fire. Positively. Just one awesome presentation after another. The indie track had some great stuff too, but really, you wanted to be at the narrative talks. You wanted to go chat with the narrative speakers in the post-talk wrap-up area. Or just sit around listening to the conversations! That's cool too. So big props to the organizers.

Another thing: four years ago, I didn't know anybody. I mean, I knew people in the IF world, and some of them were there. Emily gave a talk on Versu. We had a big IF dinner meetup. A couple of people said "Hey, you're Andrew Plotkin! I love your work!" But it was not a very social event for me. And, great talks or not, it's the social that makes GDC memorable.

What was different this year? I know a lot of people. I've been to lots of smaller game events -- Indiecade, Boston FIG, Wordplay, Practice, gaming tracks at sci-fi conventions. Our own Boston IF meetup. PAX -- well, PAX isn't a small event, but it's cheaper than GDC and you can find cool folks there.

Perhaps you are terrible at meeting people. I am terrible at meeting people! I didn't meet very many people at GDC 2012. But if somebody says hi to me at an event, maybe I'll say hi back the next year, and at another event we'll chat a little, and the following year we'll go out for lunch somewhere. And after four years of that, GDC actually worked out great for me, socially. I was surprised too.

So if you're new to the dev scene and meeting people is a scary prospect, maybe don't start with GDC! Go to smaller events. Say hi to interesting people. Heck, try coming to the Lost Levels meetup -- it's in Yerba Buena park during GDC but you don't need a badge, you can just show up and chat. The cool people will be there.

I realize, of course, that I have an unfair advantage. I have a history of famous games -- people say hi to me. I can't apologize for this or say I don't rely on it. But I don't think that you need to be pre-famous to meet people at conferences.

(I used to freak out when people came up and squeed at me. Now I try to freak out very briefly and quietly, because the conversations wind up being pretty awesome.)

So that's my thesis about GDC. Work up to it if it's intimidating. Try to swing the "summits" pass if you possibly can, because the narrative track is the best. If money is so tight that you can't even afford the "indie" pass, there's all those other events -- some of them are free. Suggest talks, too; not everybody with a speaker's badge is a Big Name in gaming.

A few quick non-GDC notes:

I am featured on two recent episodes of the Clash of the Type-Ins podcast. In the first, I recite Bigger Than You Think while Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna shout commands at me. In the second, we do the same for (part of) The Dreamhold. Also we have a lot of fun and joke around and talk about very tangential things.

Sam Barlow curated an indie game feature on Apple's App Store earlier this month. He included Meanwhile and Hadean Lands. Which was great! Thanks, Sam. (Sam has now won every possible award in the past twelve months for Her Story, possibly including the Fields Medal and the America's Cup. If it were me I honestly might switch to competitive origami just to take off the followup pressure.)

And finally, I got my head scanned. Jason Scott threw a party celebrating five years at the Internet Archive, and one of his friends brought a handheld 3D scanner. So now you can download my head. Sorry about the nose blivet; it's not a perfect scan.

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Firewatch: afterthoughts

I finished Firewatch last night, only a bit later than everybody else on the planet. (Catching up!) (I am not in fact catching up at all.) I see that Jmac has already posted about it, and I don't have a whole essay's worth of thoughts. So this will be a bit of a response post.

My immediate thoughts upon finishing the game:

Firewatch was a nice little story game that worked well for me. I enjoyed walking around in the slightly-stylized wilderness. The park was big enough for me to explore over a few days, but not so big that I got tired of crossing it (in a given chapter) or inhabiting it (over the whole game).

The designers had a great sense of how to vary the feel of the environment. Different "biomes" had different color, texture, and audio palettes. Time-of-day changed the environment, which is old hat; but FW had the additional axes of season (beginning of summer to the end) and the slowly-encroaching wildfire.

Yes, I had a sense of compression -- it was a pocket world made up of micro-worlds. But that's appropriate, really. I didn't want to spend a real-life week hiking back and forth. Similarly I appreciated the magical map locator. Yes, orienteering would have been more realistic without it, but I would have gotten fed up with that aspect of the game quickly.

The biggest strength of the game, obviously, is the voice acting. The biggest weakness (for me) was the midgame tease of the "you are a psycho" trope. I spent a fair part of the game thinking "Oh, they're going to do that damn ending" and disengaging from the story thereby. In fact they didn't do that damn ending -- spoilers, you are not a psycho -- so I got back into it towards the end. But it was a misfire of the story construction.

I also felt somewhat harassed by the radio-response UI, which was notably terrible on MacOS. Momentum scrolling made it difficult to stop on a given choice, especially with a short time limit, especially if the frame rate was down (as it often was on my middle-aged iMac). I feel like one particular misclick changed the whole ending of the game -- that is, not my character's ending, but the interpretation-of-what-happened discussion that occurs at the end. So that was annoying.

As for the overall narrative structure... FW doesn't push any particular boundaries; it grabs some familiar structures and makes a good job of them. E.g., the interpretation-of-what-happened discussion at the end. Or the way it reflects dialog choices into the game world later on. Or the game's introduction, which is not just CYOA-style IF, it's practically a Twine clone. (For example, it adopts the convention of highlighting the last few words on a page as a "next page" link, rather than having an explicit "click to continue" button. This isn't something inherent to Twine, but it's evolved in Twine story-game culture.)

That's all I've got. Glad I played it. Glad it was the size it was.

Now, onto Jmac's post, which I see is also about pacing...

Well, I didn't have the same problems. The transition to the focus on the two lost campers was kind of rocky, yes. But the game offered it up and I went with it. I'm generally complacent when the author gives me a push. (That's why I'm terrible at reading mysteries. I'll follow any misdirection without complaint.)

I did feel that the game did a poor job of linking together the two backstory-stories: the protagonist's sick wife and the lost campers. It's not that either of them disappeared from the game; but when one came up, the other faded away, and vice versa. So there was a disconnection there, but it wasn't between me and the scenery.

No, I did not find the cabin. Yes, I adopted the turtle. Then I forgot about the turtle until the last day. That could have been kept more on-surface. The turtle was fine, don't worry.

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Meanwhile for Apple TV!

Meanwhile: An Interactive Comic Book by Jason Shiga is now available for the 4th-gen Apple TV.

That's pretty much the whole announcement. You can buy it. If you've already bought the iOS version of Meanwhile, you can download it for Apple TV for free. (Go to the App Store app in the TV interface; select "Purchased"; scroll down and select "Not on this Apple TV".)

Oh, and the iOS version has been updated to fully support the iPad Pro. Somebody with an iPad Pro, try it and tell me how awesome it is.

On the way home from the ice cream store, little Jimmy discovers a mad scientist’s wonderland: an experimental mind-reading helmet, a time machine, and a doomsday device that can annihilate the human race. Which one would you like to test out first?

MEANWHILE is not an ordinary comic. YOU make the choices that determine how the story unfolds. MEANWHILE splits off into thousands of different adventures. Most will end in DOOM and DISASTER. Only one path will lead you to happiness and success.

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Lectrote now autosaves; Hadean Lands is that much closer to Steam

I've been steadily updating Lectrote, my new cross-platform(*) IF interpreter. In the past month it's gotten icons, a preferences dialog with font and color options, and -- most exciting from my point of view -- autosave.

(* Cross-platform meaning that Lectrote runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux. The interpreter only runs Glulx games, not Z-machine or TADS or any other format.)

Autosave means that if you close the game window (or quit the interpreter) and then open it again, you will find your game where you left off. You don't have to use the SAVE or RESTORE commands unless you want to keep multiple save points.

As I wrote last month, autosave is a bit of a nuisance. I spent February getting it all polished up and tested. And then the tests revealed some obscure low-level bugs in the iOS implementation of autosave. Turns out my iOS Hadean Lands app was failing to store one VM table, and therefore running about 50% slower than it should have. Whoops. Good thing I wrote tests, right?

Lectrote on the desktop seems to be adequately speedy for most games, including Hadean Lands. So that's the last big technical barrier to creating a really nice HL app for Mac/Win/Linux...

I don't mean to imply that a Steam release is coming this week. It will still take some time to adapt Lectrote to a single-game interface. Naturally I will document this process! I want to make things as smooth as possible for any author who wants to release an Inform game as a Mac/Win/Linux app.

(The iOS process is, er, not very smooth. This is mostly because Apple's process for the iOS App Store is baroque, to say the least. I'm not planning to put HL in the MacOS App Store, so it should be simpler.)

I'll also see if I can include the extra dynamically-updating windows from the iOS version of HL: the clickable map and the alchemy index. In theory, these aren't too hard to set up -- I can copy the logic and contents right over from the iOS app. In practice, theory sits on the curb and laughs at you when you say things like that. So we'll see.

But the end is in sight. Give me another couple of months.

Once I have a working HL app, I will release it as an update for the existing Mac/Win/Linux versions of the game. If you have downloaded HL from the Humble Store or Itch.IO (either as a purchaser or a Kickstarter backer), you will be able to download the new app and try it out. If no horrible bugs turn up, I'll start preparing the Steam release.

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The Space Under the Window on sub-Q

My experimental 1997 work of IF poetry, The Space Under the Window, has been reprinted by sub-Q Magazine.

(Yes, it's been available on my web site all along. But sub-Q is cool! Also they pay for reprinting short IF! I like that sort of thing. So go replay it there, if you haven't tried it in a decade or so.)

SUtW is an interesting side note of its era. 1997 was still solidly the era of "IF means puzzle-based parser games", although IFComp was rapidly loosening up the definitions. My idea wasn't exactly choice-based IF -- I was still committed to freely-typed input -- but I wanted to get away from standard verb-noun commands. And, of course, I wanted to try escaping the notion of puzzles.

I wound up with a sort of freely branching, non-goal-oriented narrative; what we might call a "time cave" today. I wasn't able to sustain much of it. But I liked what I got.

(I'd have a hard time telling you exactly how big the structure is! Some of the source code got eaten by a hard drive crash -- remember when MacOS didn't have memory protection? It wouldn't be hard to disassemble the Z-code and reconstruct the source, but I've never had the urge.)

Thanks to Tory for this opportunity, and also for pulling together the cover art. SUtW predates the era of IF cover art, so I didn't have any ready to go.

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Meanwhile for Apple TV coming soon

I am happy to report that Meanwhile: An Interactive Comic Book has passed its review for the Apple TV store. It will be available on February 29th. Because Leap Days are nifty.

Jason and I are excited about this launch. If you're not familiar with Meanwhile -- and, really, you should be -- it's Jason Shiga's mad-science fairy tale about a kid in a laboratory of crazy inventions. You've got a time machine, a mind-reading helmet, and a doomsday device. What more could you want?

Meanwhile started out as a book, and I adapted it for iOS a few years back. Now I've ported the app for the Apple TV -- or rather, I've re-engineered it. Going from a touchscreen to the Siri remote forced me to completely rethink how the app focuses and displays the panels of the comic. It's come out beautifully, if I may say so.

(And, as always, Meanwhile is completely playable using VoiceOver for people with visual disabilities.)

Meanwhile will be a joint purchase. If you've bought the iOS version, you'll be able to download the Apple TV app for free as soon as it's released. And vice versa.

As far as I can tell, there aren't any interactive graphic novels on the Apple TV store yet. (Do people still say "hypercomics"?) So this is our window. Maybe we can start a trend. Pass the word around.

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Introducing Lectrote, an interpreter

Today I posted the beta of Lectrote, a new IF interpreter application for Mac, Windows, and Linux. This is both more and less exciting than it sounds!

If you're familiar with the IF scene, you know that there are several applications which can be used to play these games. Zoom (Mac), WinGlulxe (Windows), and Gargoyle (multiplatform) are the most commonly used. And then there's Quixe, which is a Javascript-based interpreter used on iplayif.com and other web sites.

When I was looking to release Hadean Lands as an app, I found that none of these were really what I wanted. Zoom is unmaintained and buggy; WinGlulxe is weird about scrolling; Gargoyle has problems on hi-res displays. (I'm summarizing, it was a long messy story.)

Quixe had the UI that I wanted -- no surprise; it's the one I wrote the UI for! -- but it wasn't really meant to be used as an app. It exists as a web page, or a component of a web page. Also, it's slow. So I put it aside and went with Gargoyle.

However, the long messy story didn't end there! A few weeks ago I was gazing over the endless cycle of dev-tools and noticed Electron. Electron lets you wrap up a Node.js tool as a standalone app for Mac, Win, and Linux. And Node.js is, well, I don't really know what it is but it's a web thing. Seems ideal, right? Stuff Quixe's web page into Electron and we're done.

It wasn't quite that easy. Node.js has full filesystem access (unlike a web page), so I had to extend Quixe's load/save system to deal with ordinary files. (So you can exchange save files between Lectrote and other interpreters.) But that was still pretty easy. I stuck the IF postcard in a menu, too.

And now you can try it.

So what does this have to do with getting Hadean Lands onto Steam? Well, it's a very simple tweak to drop a Glulx game file into Lectrote. Then you've got a Mac/Win/Linux app that plays a single game. And it looks nice and the text layout is pretty and you can adjust the font size without editing a text file.

I haven't done that yet. I'll have to adjust the menus -- knock out all the support for opening multiple games.

More important, I'll have to add autosave. Right now, if you're playing a game and you close the window, your game is gone. Hope you typed SAVE! That's okay for an interpreter (used by IF habitués), but it's not ideal. It's really not acceptable for a Steam standalone game release.

Autosave for Glulx games is a bit of a nuisance, but I got it working on iOS. I will get it to work with Quixe. It will just take a few more weeks.

...oh, and then there's the speed. I mentioned that Quixe is slow, right? It's faster than it was but it might not be fast enough for Hadean Lands. If you own HL for Mac/Win/Linux, try it! In particular, try loading a mid-game save file and typing a command which requires many stages, like GO TO BAROSY.

(If you don't own HL, may I remind you that it's on sale for the next two days? I probably don't have to. But I do it anyway.)

Anyway, I may try plugging a different Glulx VM into Lectrote to speed it up. I can probably run RemGlk/Glulxe as a subprocess of the Node.js server... We'll see.

For now, Lectrote is a multi-platform interpreter app which has the UI I want, and that's a good start.

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Hadean Lands sale at IndieGameStand

I am happy to report that Hadean Lands is this week's deal on IndieGameStand. For the next four days, you can buy my alchemical IF puzzle hit for -- for -- whatever price you want. Go nuts.

Beat the average price to get some bonuses:

  • High resolution map: This is the artwork that I used for the Hadean Lands backer reward poster. It is larger than the version included with the general HL release, and includes a few additional details.
  • Hadean Lands source code samples: A few representative samples from the Inform 7 source code of the game.
  • Critical Hit: An unfinished prototype of a game I started in 2009. This has never been released on the Internet, although I included it on the HL backer reward CD.

IndieGameStand is offering Hadean Lands for Mac, Windows, and Linux. These are exactly the same versions that are available on the Humble Store and Itch.IO.

Play IF on iPhone or iPad? I've put the iOS version of HL on sale too! For the same period -- until Thursday. Or buy the bundle with Shade and Heliopause.

Note: the iOS version is not pay-what-you-want; it's a flat $2. And it does not include the IGS bonuses listed above. The two sales are separate; sorry, I have no way to link them together. But you can buy both if you want, right?

Enjoy.

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IGF nominees: my comments

The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (March, San Francisco, expensive). This year I was invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative (along with Emily Short and some other folks you might know).

As I understand the awards process, it's a three-phase thing. A large pool of game experts and designers nominate a large list of games, and then spend a few months playing and commenting on them. (The long list was over 750 games this year.) Smaller groups of experts then look at the top-voted entries on the long list and select six finalists. The final winners will be announced from GDC on March 16th.

I was involved in phase 2, which meant playing a bunch of games (but like a dozen, not 750!) and then talking them over with the other folks on the narrative jury. I have permission to post my game notes (although not, of course, anything the other jurors said!) and that's this post.

The finalists in the Narrative category were (in alphabetical order): The Beginner's Guide; Black Closet; Her Story; The Magic Circle; That Dragon, Cancer; Undertale. Congratulations to all of them! And to the finalists in the other categories, too.

Important details:

  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. I don't feel I've played enough games this year to have a sense of what's best overall. I had enough trouble squeezing in the time to play the Narrative nominees!
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.) I had already purchased (and played) Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide on my own account.
  • I wrote these comments in the order that I played the games. Except for Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide, which I wrote up pretty much when they occurred to me.
  • Nearly all of the top-voted narrative games were available for Mac! Good news for us Mac folks. (I asked about this in advance; I wouldn't have accepted the invitation if I couldn't play the games.)
  • See also Emily Short's post of comments about the voting process.

My voting criteria were... well, Emily's post has a good list of points: mechanics that support the story, observant writing, and substance. I care about all of those things, but it's an extremely subjective process. I certainly didn't give a finely-graded point-based score to each game. I also didn't simply vote for my favorite games. Obviously my preferences color everything! But the audience here is people who follow indie gaming, not just me, so I tried to keep that in mind.

In the end, I tried to pick the games which will make gamers say "Holy crap, games are even more narratively awesome than I thought."

Games that I discuss in this post:

  • The Writer Will Do Something
  • Sun Dogs
  • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald
  • The Beginner's Guide
  • That Dragon, Cancer
  • Her Story
  • The Magic Circle
  • Emily Is Away
  • Cibele
  • Read Only Memories
  • Oxenfree
  • Sunset
  • Undertale

Onward to the comments!


The Writer Will Do Something

Clever, sharp portrayal; writing from the heart, which is to say it will go over well with everybody in the biz; not particularly interactive. Makes good use of the palette of "nuh-uh" interactivity -- familiar stuff but it's short enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome.

In the end this is an anecdote which will draw a regretful nod from anybody who's even remotely close to the game industry. (I am only remotely close myself, mind you.)

Sun Dogs

Very atmospheric but it feels sparse. You start with one mission but it is difficult to find any others. (I found one other mission on my first play-through, none on my second.) Mostly you fly around and have a collection of disconnected encounters. You accumulate an inventory of capabilities and bric-a-brac; some of this opens up alternate encounters and endings, but you can't effectively search for these options, so you're stuck with random exploration.

Sometimes you die unexpectedly and lose some of your stuff. This is a minor nuisance, which fits the setting -- but since the only achievable goal is "randomly collect all the stuff", this is a serious drawback in play.

If there were a way to follow connections, or enough content that you were constantly running into story element connections by sheer luck, this would be a lot more engaging. As it is I've played twice and I feel like I've done it all.

Langeskov Emerald

This was a bagatelle, and yet I laughed! Reader, I laughed.

The game relies entirely on a deft absurdism, juggling silly concepts of how games do (or should) work. If you care more or less about making games than I do, it will fall flat. Probably the fact that it works at all (for me) just shows how young videogames are as a medium; you can't go to this well often before everybody (including me) starts saying "Yeah yeah, meta-humor, next please." But this time, I laughed.

(Second thoughts: didn't Portal 2 do all these jokes plus a whole range of other emotional tones, plus great puzzle design? I guess it did. So I'm just a sucker for British comedians. Fine.)

The Beginner's Guide

Having just played Langeskov Emerald Whatsit, I should write up my thoughts about The Beginner's Guide (which I played last month).

I found TBG really engaging. Yes, three out of my first four games in this IGF thing are "game-writing by game writers about game-writing", and that's too many. I have no desire for this medium to disappear up its own self-regarding butthole. And no, TBG is not the best writing or the best character story I've encountered this year. The construction of Coda's games is too artificial, too geared towards the narrator's presentation of them -- I was never able to believe in a real Coda (even outside the narrator's distortions).

But TBG hits three of my, as they say, bulletproof kinks. First: unity of form and content -- ideas about games are presented in a game, in a way that really wouldn't be possible in any other medium. Second: the unreliable narrator -- my brain is engaged in absorbing the story on multiple levels, trying to figure out how they relate or contradict. Third: the questions of fame, public persona, personal boundaries, and what we get from this whole crazy enterprise anyhow.

As I said in my notes about Emerald Tiger Whatever, this is a young medium. When I say that, I mean that a game can impress me simply by taking on a topic or an approach I've never seen before. The next generation will be over all that. I'm not, and I just love the way TBG revels in doing this sort of thing. Can you do characterization via Let's Play, addressing the player directly all the way through and putting the entire story in subtext? Of course! Boom. I'm sold.

That Dragon, Cancer

An emotional gauntlet to get through, obviously, but also a relief after all the clever Stanley-Parable-ness. Someone tells us a story -- an actual story that happened to him. That's all. It's not clever. It's simple, honest, and it works.

Okay, not all of it is simple. The game-metaphor scenes come perilously close to being clever, and I think they lose power because of it. When I see a game, I start to look for game mechanics -- that's a distraction. I'm sure the point is to set up game convention (try to win) against story convention (no victory), which is fine, but we've seen that trick dozens of times before. Show me how you drowned. That's what works.

Let me rephrase my complaint: the game felt scattershot. The chapters went back and forth between metaphors that you observe and metaphors that you engage with. Maybe "unbalanced" is the word I'm looking for.

Then, in the middle, the scene with the baby toy and the four-part conversation. That used interactivity to present points of view, which was -- actually really cool! But again, out of balance with the rest of the game. A degree of meaningful control existed only in that scene, and then we are back to being (complicit) observers. I dunno, I'm probably splitting hairs that absolutely nobody else cares about.

Show me a hospital bed. Show me your letters to God. Show me a baby. Being in a room with a screaming baby is a human experience which, it turns out, a game can present very effectively. Why does that seem strange? Only because we keep gaming in such a small, cramped box.

Her Story

Played this several months ago, when it came out; really enjoyed it.

(I've known of the author since ancient times in the IF community. However, we didn't meet in person until this year's Indiecade, after I played the game.)

I have nothing to say about the game itself except "See what happens when you have exactly one mechanic and tune the entire game experience around it?" (The CRT-style screen distortion was a bit much for me, I admit. I turned that off.)

The sneaky part of why Her Story is awesome, and I didn't really get this until I started reading other people's reviews, is that it pretty well works no matter how you approach it. (Despite having no gating mechanism at all.) Every player is going to run into different bits of information first, but there's a common cycle of "Huh, this is strange", "Huh, I suspect shenanigans", "Huh, I wonder if...". This indicates a very broad spread of very minor clues, which must be a lot harder to set up than it is to say.

The other bit I want to talk about is how genre-fluid the story is; it has interestingly different readings whether you think of it as a police procedural, a gothic thriller, a contemporary fairy tale. But I basically lifted that observation off Emily's review posts, so I'll leave it for her to discuss. :)

The Magic Circle

Whew. There was a fair amount of that game. I mean, compared to Tiger Heist Langerhans, anyhow.

So, The Magic Circle had a lot of fun in it -- but not compared to the amount of game there was. The core mechanic was good, and they worked a lot of clever stuff into it... but it still felt like about six-to-eight clever puzzle scenes spread out over a lot of landscape. Mind you, they could have paced it out with combat! (Which would have been awful.) I enjoyed the exploration enough to finish the game. (Despite the truly terrible framerate on my Mac, sigh.)

But! We're not here to talk about game mechanics. (Or framerate.) The narrative was... not as closely connected to the game as it needed to be. This is a game about taking control of your experience as a player -- but your trip around the fantasy/sci-fi world is an extended hacking session whose goal is "end the hacking session". It has no influence on anything in the narrative until the moment you hack Coda's terminal. And in the meantime... journals. I have nothing against journals per se, but all the background kind of hammered in the point that the story was on hold for most of the game's duration.

There was plenty of background. It was well-written. I was motivated to collect it all, which is all the excuse that journals need. Still -- it was jarring to reach the endgame and feel the story jolt back into gear, while also removing most of the exploring-and-experimenting mechanics that I'd been enjoying.

Cheesy meta presentation tricks at the start and end... full points. I will never have anything bad to say about cheesy meta tricks.

This leaves us to the tone. After four? five? stories' worth of game designers talking about game design, I think we have a respectable sample, and I will say that TMC's approach was my least favorite. It was fundamentally nasty: everybody in the story was an asshole. And, as an evocation of an archetypical game project, it implied that everybody is an asshole. The design gurus, the programmers, the level builders, the artists, HR, the playtesters, the customers, the fans. The guy who once wrote a famous text adventure and wants to move on to other things. (Cough.) All of us. Assholes.

Except possibly the Bastion-y AI, who is clearly a jerk but may have noble goals. To wit: teaching you to be a game designer! You can be better than all those other folks! And if you believe that, then you're the asshole.

The Writer Will Do Something was all about assholes, but (a) you could try to do better or walk away, even if it was a cursory attempt; (b) it was short. You could recognize the scenario without soaking in it. TMC was a long, sordid bath. Or, let me put it this way: TWWDS, even in its brutal portrayal, had compassion. TMC had not a scrap.

Emily Is Away

It is hard for me to think about this outside the context of Emily (Short)'s review and the other posts around that time. I read a bunch of them before playing EiA. (Usually I avoid discussion or at least skip the spoilers before I've played a game.)

(I also saw an alpha version of EiA at a Boston Indies demo meetup last year. I only looked at it for a few seconds, though -- I didn't get any of the storyline.)

So after all that, I'm afraid the game didn't have a huge impact on me. It's not my era; I didn't use Windows, I didn't use that chat interface. It does not ping for me.

Not to say it's an alien world -- I sent lots of email! To high-school crushes, even. But, well, I also spent my college years not drinking and not getting laid. (If that's not too much info.) So when I tried to "play me" in the game, it kind of forced me off into a situation that wasn't very me.

(Although by avoiding alcohol, I avoided the plot branch with the skeeviest overtones.)

I have the sense that fans are being drawn in by the nostalgia of the game's presentation; by the extreme off-stage narrative (everything important happens in the scene breaks, so it's all up to your imagination); and by the "nuh-uh" interactivity. (The untyped-rejected choices in the last scene.) This is not new stuff to IF experts but maybe the broader audience still gets a charge out of it.

But -- to the extent that it has an impact, it really emphasizes that the game is about you. Your tongue-tied regret, your sense of lost possibility, your implied unrequited crush. Even if you spent the early chapters trying to empathize with Emily, her viewpoint gets pretty well scrubbed out of the last scene. And that is kind of skeevy no matter how you got there.

Cibele

I pulled this up after Emily Is Away, thinking "I'm done with Games About Game Writers, so it's time to play all the Games About Terrible Online Relationships! Ha ha kill me."

As with my grousing about GAGW, this was unfair -- all these games do different things, from different angles, and I'm really having a great time comparing them all.

Cibele is purely expository game. I will go a very short distance out on a limb and call it autobiographical. It presents itself as a dramatization of an event in the author's life. Or a dramatization of events in the lives of a social circle she was part of -- the difference doesn't weigh on my response. Either way, it rings with the same honest self-presentation that I felt in That Dragon, Cancer.

As with EiA, I am getting a story that I did not live through. My college years predated the era of hot selfies as a flirting tactic. I spent a bit of time on MUDs, but it wasn't my social milieu.

But Cibele contrasts nicely with EiA. Its narrator is a specific person; it doesn't invite me to "play me". Instead, it fills in "Nina's" background with the digital artifacts of her life. (This is very much a database-search game -- to the extent you're doing anything, you're browsing files. Compare to Portal (1986) more than Her Story.) The upshot is that I felt pulled into another person's world in exactly the way that EiA failed to. But, at the same time, I had no sense that this was my story or my world. Even when I was steering an avatar around a faux-MMO UI, it was pro-forma interactivity -- the hand on the mouse was not the voice on the headphones.

So, Cibele gives us intimacy without complicity. I could call that thematic -- the story is about unreciprocated intimacy. But, eh, that's probably crap. I think this model is just the best way the author found to present her story. (I haven't read any extra-game statements by the author, so if I'm wrong, go ahead and mock.)

(The game also gives us intimacy with subjectivity, which I appreciated. I see so much discussion framed as "male gaze" versus "female gaze". Cibele shows a woman's body in self-gaze, which really isn't either of the above.)

What hovers over the game as you play is fear. Is the the story of a victim? Again, maybe there's extra-game framing which clears that up... I don't think so, though. That's the energy of the story as I felt it. And it's resolved: no it's not. There's uncertainty, there's hurt, there's regret; but everyone is being as honest as I figure college students know how to be. We're left without a dramatic ending, which is of course how an honest personal story has to end. Life isn't over, this is just a thing that happened.

So I'm moved, and drawn in. More so than with TD,C, which really is kind of an overload -- how can you not empathize with the parents of a dying child? You monster. It's practically pre-ordained. Cibele is far more tentative, but I think more effective for that.

But, on the flip side, it is mechanically thin. TD,C screwed up some of its interactive presentation, but when it got parts right, it wowed me more than a straight database game could. EiA made good story use of its UI, and of course Her Story used its search mechanic to turn "straight database game" into something massively engaging. Cibele just doesn't have much to compare.

Sorry, I've slipped back under my (so-weighty) game-designer hat. This is not how the wider audience is going to react, and so it's a dumb note to end my review on. Cibele was a really sweet game! I'm glad I played it.

Read Only Memories

  • (John "JJSignal" James, Ted DiNola, Tommy Thompson)
  • IGF entry page
  • (did not finish)

I played about a chapter and a half of this. It's a nice production, but the story didn't grab me at all. I don't think the writing is bad -- it's pretty bouncy and there's a good variety of characters. But none of the plot hooks hooked me. AI-is-sentient, nothing new there; broke gumshoe in cyberpunk style, ditto; etc. All tropes, nothing built on the tropes.

Also, the story seems to be held together by coincidence. As far as I got, anyhow. (For all I know, the cute robot buddy turns out to be an evil mastermind. Sorry if that turns out to be a spoiler.)

Also, the conversation was all line-by-line slow-print. I maxed out the animation speed and clicked through as fast as possible; it was still slow and painful to read. Literally painful -- the game uses an eyestrain pixel font. I am not sentimental about pixels.

It's got the form of an early Sierra-Lucas-style graphical adventure, but it doesn't have much adventure-ness. It's mostly scripted conversation alternating with room-search, with just an occasional light puzzle thrown in. I'm sure this balance is deliberate, but it's not my thing. So I gave up.

Oxenfree

I was only able to play the opening; I ran into some kind of camera bug that prevented me from advancing. (Got stuck just after entering the cave.)

The game seemed strong up to that point. The characters are vivid (in a Scooby Gang way) (original cartoon or Buffy ref, take your pick). The art is nice and the animations are smooth.

The interface lets you participate in a full-on multi-person conversation without dropping out of the move-and-explore UI. That's not ostentatious, and players might not even pick it out as a feature, but it's really impressive when you think about it. The opening scene has you and your gang of pals/rivals/relatives sneaking out to the beach. You wind up in a game of truth-or-etc, throwing embarrassing questions at each other, and incidentally setting up all the characterization -- while simultaneously wandering around, throwing rocks, grabbing a beer out of the cooler, checking the exits. Any of these things in isolation would be standard point-and-click fare, but doing it all in one smooth scene just works really well. I hope more games pick up the trick.

I didn't get far enough to feel where the story was going -- besides "ghost story" -- but I look forward to a version that's playable for me.

Sunset

Strong on story, weak on making me think that I'm part of the story.

The model of "absorb narration while your hands are kept busy with low-level tasks" is common enough. (It's the bulk of Cibele, for example.) Sunset is trying to foreground this model, in fact, I think -- you are a housekeeper, literally tidying up the penthouse of the rich mover-shaker type. The fantasy-architecture space is gorgeous, luxuriously furnished, and not yours.

However, putting a lampshade on the model is not per se a solution to anything. The actual play of Sunset consists of walking into the apartment, hearing a narration of recent events, and then tooling around to complete your chores. As you do, you may find optional actions -- these are how your character gets personally involved in the story. I gather that the story arcs are "you romance your boss", "you aid the revolution", "you help get your brother out of jail". (I'm not sure whether those last two are independent.)

The problem is, these options are necessarily indirect -- you're just moving things around in an apartment -- and appear with little context. So it's not ever really clear what you're accomplishing. If you make a fancy dinner and leave it on the table, is that generous or subservient? If you move an encrypted letter, are you covering for your boss or interfering with his plans? Nor can you ever take back an action. Thus, I had no sense of trying to advance specific goals. Instead, I would just punch every button I found, on the theory that doing anything was more interesting than doing nothing. I wound up not getting very far in any of the story arcs.

(Assuming I've even understood the arcs correctly! I'm mostly going off the Steam achievements list, I admit. I've unlocked "interested in Ortega" but not "has feelings for Ortega" or "probably in love with Ortega". Okay then.)

(I'm pretty sure I boinked him in that last chapter, so I must be the casual-fling type of girl.)

What Sunset does really well is immerse you in an environment, and then convey mood through shifts in that environment. I spent three hours walking around that penthouse; I saw it empty, furnished, cluttered, damaged, repaired, reconstructed, and stripped. I performed a lot of those changes, plus some touches of my own personalization. They paralleled the narrative, and I'll say this: when I took a break, my real-life apartment suddenly looked pokey and cramped. And it took me a moment to remember where my real-life bathroom was. I swear this is true.

The period decor is fantastic. So much Helvetica. So much. This is a compliment.

What Sunset does not do so well is propel you through the story. Chores are boring. I don't know if chores have to be boring -- maybe there's a way for this to work -- but Sunset didn't make it interesting. By halfway through, I was just clicking and waiting for the story to end. Then hoping for it to end. Then pleading. As Christmas approached in the game calendar, I became desperately attached to the theory that the game would end at the end of 1972. Result: I am a person who has greeted Epiphany by flipping it the two-fisted bird, which must be an uncommon blasphemy. (The game runs three months into 1973, in case you're wondering.)

So we have a game which takes up a set of tools, and works the heck out of those tools; I think it does everything it can possibly do with them. I admire this, but I cannot recommend the game because I spent half of it wishing I wasn't playing any more.

Undertale

I played this for 90 minutes, and it was... I don't know. Funny, but not that funny. It has all the JRPG conventions that make me not play JRPGs. It messes with them but it's still based on them. So I quit.

Then I look at discussion by people who are into it, and they're rapturous. I see people enthusiastically discussing how the themes work and how much there is buried in the story. How brilliant the hard ending is (which takes 15-umpty hours to reach). All under spoilers! The first thing everybody says about Undertale is that it's hard to talk about without spoilers.

Well. James Nicoll's second most famous quote is, "I don't mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface." The surface level of Undertale has nothing for me, and it's careful to conceal everything I might care about. You win, Undertale. You have successfully imitated a game I don't want to play.

...Here's a less snide way of putting it: Undertale is aimed at a particular audience, and it calls its shot right up front. I did the same thing with Hadean Lands. Want to play old-school IF with alchemy puzzles? Let's start with an old-school IF alchemy puzzle! Begin as you mean to go on. Undertale is the same way. If you don't get a huge kick out of the first 30 minutes, stop.

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What Zarf is up to, winter edition

I survived my month of a thousand conferences. Three conferences, which feels like a thousand when you put them in a four-week span. IndieCade was great! WordPlay was great! I also went to Practice, which was great! Then I was tired.

Between all of that and some assorted client work, I have had zero time to put into The Flashpaper War. Oops. So the "coming later this year" notice that I posted in May turns out to be a lie. Sorry! (This is why I didn't Kickstart it, right?)

I've updated the Flashpaper teaser page to say "Coming in 2016". I really intend to hold to that. Not least because Flashpaper was my "make some money on IF in 2015" idea. Money is awesome. I'm very keen on having some new IF for sale in 2016.

I'm still excited about Flashpaper as a game concept, too. Now that I've taken a three-month vacation from working on it, I can see that the underlying concept needs to be hit with the iteration stick a few more times. It got good responses at FIG, but it's not as catchy as I'd like. Flashpaper is unlike most IF that's out there, so it has to build its own market in order to be a hit.

In the spirit of setting expectations, I will say: Flashpaper is not parser IF. It will be an iOS game, or at least an iOS-first game. It was conceived as a touchscreen game from the beginning and that's how it will work best.

(Android may follow eventually if it seems worth the effort of porting. Yes, I say that about all my iOS projects. Nothing yet has been enough of a success to be worth learning Android programming. I live in hope.)

As for other projects: I still want to do Meanwhile for AppleTV. I took a quick stab at porting the iOS version over, but the scrolling didn't work right and then I had to put it aside for client work. I'll get back to it over the winter break.

I am also -- and don't take this as a promise but come on this is awesome -- looking at entering the Imaginary Games Jam. Registration deadline is a week from today.

And I need to sew elbow patches on my hideous plaid jacket. That jacket has been in circulation since 1987-ish. Getting a bit worn around the seams.

So those are my winter plans. Plus the usual round of keeping an eye on Inform bugs, thinking about IF libraries, hanging out, and generally messing around. The next Boston IF meetup is Thursday, by the way.

Looking farther out, I'm gonna be at GDC in March. I'm not giving any talks or anything, just visiting. It's been four years since my last (first) GDC trip, and I've met way more cool game people since then, so it's probably time to go back.

I hope to have more exciting Zarf-does-stuff news soon...

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4000 pages of Infocom documents

I said 4000 pages of Infocom documents. You heard me, right?

These are paper records saved by Steve Meretzky while Infocom was operating. He saved them after the company fell down; he preserved them for decades; he let Jason Scott scan them while making Get Lamp. The originals are now at Stanford University. The scans (slightly edited to remove personal information) are now on the Internet Archive.

What's currently up there is all the design documents for many of Infocom's games. (I originally wrote "nearly all" but in fact it's seven of them.)

Further doc dumps (memos, email, schedules, business plans) will appear in the future -- they require more editing and permissions, since there's more personal information there.

Go nuts.

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The Room 3: design ruminations

(Or "roominations", har har.)

I have finished The Room 3, third in the series of gorgeous puzzle-box games for touchscreen. I didn't know it was in production -- The Room 2 seemed to wrap up the storyline, such as it was -- but I guess the designers have decided to ride this clockwork train for as long as it ticks. I'm not objecting; this entry in the series is a satisfying chunk of puzzle manipulation. It's longer than the first two games put together, and it expands the original game mechanic into an explorable environment. (By offering an architectural space of rooms, and also adding a new "zoom into tiny sub-rooms" mechanic.)

I want to talk about one particular aspect: the storyline. In idle post-game chatter, I tweeted:

I can't say I think of these games as narrative objects at all. (--@zarfeblong)

That may sound nuts; how different is the Room series from the classically-narrative Myst series? Puzzles + journals = IF. But there must be a difference. When I said above "the storyline, such as it was", I wasn't kidding. I literally don't remember anything about the storyline of The Room and The Room 2 except that R2 seemed to wrap it up. And there was "the Null", but that's something that R3 reminded me of.

R1 had no environmental storytelling. It was ostentatiously unanchored in any physical environment. It had physicality, yes -- its puzzle-boxes were of wood, brass, glass, and steel, as conveyed by texture and sound and the direct manipulation of the touchscreen interface. But the boxes sat on spotlighted tables. The walls around you were unfocussed and dimly lit: the bare minimum to keep you feeling grounded at all. Despite the title, the game kept your attention resolutely off the room you were in.

R2 added furniture -- adjacent tables, mechanisms on the walls. Now we could talk about "the room" as a space that the game took place in. But these were still silent spaces: no history, no future.

In R3, as I said, we are given an architectural environment. We can move from room to room. We can backtrack to consider clues that were originally obscure. Occasionally the topology even becomes relevant, adding a Rhem-style puzzle or two.

These additions expand the scope for puzzle design. But do they add to the storyline? I don't think so. The journals tell us that this house is named "Greyholm", but that's the only mention of the house or anything in it, aside from undescribed "keys" and "parts of the Null". We get no history, no sense of events occurring here. We have no reason to imagine the Craftsman reading in his library or puttering in his greenhouse.

Now you may object: who says this game needs a sense of history? Perhaps the designers wanted to hew to the original R1 aesthetic -- an uncontexted puzzlebox -- while embracing the expanded puzzle possibilities of architecture. And I agree with that!

Or, from the other side: does Myst really have much more than this? Atrus writes about construction in his Ages, but you never get a picture of little Sirrus and Achenar playing in the planetarium or swimming by the dock. Myst Island resists being placed in any context beyond "they burned the library". And I agree with that too. (Although Cyan clearly saw that as a shortcoming; they stuffed as much history into Riven as it could swallow.)

So I am not criticizing The Room 3, but observing how I reacted to it: as a garden of puzzles in spotlights. The journals and letters, lacking historical context, presented themselves to me as irrelevant. So I didn't read 'em! I gave them one glance each, to check whether the pattern had been broken by a surprise clue or something, and then moved on with the "real" game.

The designers may be frustrated by this reaction. Here they are writing content and I'm ignoring it. (And I call myself a text game fan!) They're even trying to set up some narrative tension by having two sets of notes; one says "do the thing!" and the other says "it's a trap -- don't do the thing!" And I'm ignoring that too, because the game just doesn't have any space for it. There's no action you can take which corresponds to "don't fall into the trap". There are only puzzles. You solve the puzzles, or you quit out and go back to Pac-Man.

Myst, of course, set up a very similar narrative tension (red pages or blue pages?) but it managed to make it stick because you could make a choice. It was a silly choice, a clearly terrible choice, but the game let you express it. So you had a reason to at least listen. And then when the third alternative came along, you were engaged enough to count it a victory.

R3 tried an interesting variant of this. You progress through rooms, solving puzzles and collecting pieces of the Null. But as you do, you discover extra puzzles on the side. These appear unsolvable at first, but you can discover an "in" and begin solving them in parallel with the mainline puzzle rooms. Or not; up to you. If you complete both threads, then you can reach extra endings from the game's final scene.

These side puzzles are associated with the "it's a trap" notes -- but, since I was ignoring the notes, I didn't actually notice that until later. In retrospect, the designers must have intended this to be your choice: finish the main puzzle thread or the side puzzle thread? Accept the Null challenge or refuse it?

Except the game doesn't work that way at all, because puzzles are for solving. You're never forced to choose between the threads. You can work on either at your leisure; alternate threads or leave the side puzzles for later. (The side thread is unlocked by the main thread, so you can't solve it on its own. That's what makes it "side".) This is an open design (to a degree, but more open than R1 or R2 were) -- an excellent thing, but not a narrative choice. Final-scene choices are never narrative choices in the game, because the game is over.

(Yes, I'm talking about Myst here too.)

The game has structure; the main-vs-side puzzle construction is admirably clear. The final scene invites you to discover the extra endings -- unsolved puzzles, and then an extra goal beyond that -- purely through presentation. (The closing screen nudges you about which endings you've found, but it didn't have to.) My point is that this structure is not the narrative choice that the journals seem to be conveying. In fact it actively cuts against it; the game wants you to solve all the puzzles.

I'd extend this to the atmosphere, as well. The Room series has a tone of unearthly horror. But this does not flow from unreliable letter-writers or Lovecraftian tentacles. (The tentacles are kind of laughable.) It comes from the unexpected abrogation of your physical environment. You are simultaneously led to think of the world as real and as a directed dreamscape. When your expectations of structure, solidity, and architectural space fall out from under you -- that's what makes these games disturbing.

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Indiecade happened and it didn't kill me

We showed off Seltani at Indiecade! To lots of people. Lots and lots. Not everybody was interested -- it was, after all, a text game in a hall crowded with flashing lights and VR headsets -- but plenty of people thought it was worth a look. Some were Myst fans (or even Myst Online fans); some were old MUD users; some were familiar with Twine but had never seen a multiplayer Twine-like.

I gave out stacks of postcards with this map I did of the Seltani District (the game's initial hub area). It had the URL on the back, obviously. (Note to self: next time I reprint the postcard, boldface the URL.)

In a wiser and more organized world I would have a story to tell about Indiecade, but it's not, I don't, and I'm moderately exhausted in a hotel as I write this. So you get lists.

People I met or re-met (in no order): Tory Hoke (of Sub-Q Magazine), Squinky, Zak S, Rich Lemarchand, Tablesaw, Sam Barlow (Her Story won the big festival jury prize), Cat Manning, one of the Chaosmos designers (I have lost which one), Zoe Quinn, Naomi Clark, Mark Marino, Matt Weise, Patrick Smith (Vectorpark), Jim Munroe, Kyle Seeley, Michael Mateas, Michael Carriere, and a lot of others who I am failing to bring to mind because it was a packed weekend.

Games I recognized, played, or intend to check out: Emily Is Away, Desolus, Kairo, Nevermind, Museum of Simulation Technology, Darknet, Metamorphabet, Pygmalion's Challenge, Pavilion, Walden, The Meadow, Line Wobbler, Memories of a Broken Dimension, Thumper, Consentacle, Red and Pleasant Land. This too is an incomplete list. Very, very incomplete. I am not knocking your game if it's not mentioned here.

Bonus points to Sam Barlow for trying to get me to play Consentacle. I declined. It's not you, Sam, it's me.

I am grateful to everybody who came up and introduced yourselves to me. Or re-introduced yourselves to me -- I'm bad at faces. (Have I told the story of how I've met Chris Klimas three times and each time thought it was the first?) I had interesting conversations with writers, teachers, musicians, artists, and (obviously) gamers and game designers. I collected a centimeter-thick stack of business cards (which helped me write this post, at minimum). I had a gelato.

Special thanks again to Carl Muckenhoupt (of Baf's Guide, fondly remembered) who volunteered to help me out with the Seltani demo for hours and hours.

Oh, and I visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology! That was... a trip. Describing the Museum is probably the least useful thing one can do about it, so I won't.


After I wrote the above, as I waited in the airport for my flight home, I saw this post from one of the Indiecade organizers:

Implicit in my work with IndieCade was a belief that conferences—the talks, the panels and the interstitial moments of community—are vehicles for change. Looking back at the last six years, I no longer believe this is a meaningful way to sustainably support marginalized communities. And so I’ve made the decision to step down from my conference co-chair role [...]

[...] For me, a big motivation for volunteering my time to co-chair the IndieCade conference has been giving marginalized voices a platform to share their work. Events like IndieCade and GDC’s diversity track give these developers and critics a platform to share their work, but I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit to those outside academia and game development companies.

[...] But within marginalized communities of gamemakers, outside the academic and game development ecosystems, it is unfair to assume everyone can afford to take on the opportunity costs and financial burden of attending a conference. Even with the free conference pass given to most speakers, travel, lodging and food can easily eat up $1,000 or more for a weekend event. Over the last couple of years, IndieCade has made efforts to provide some financial assistance to conference speakers who need it, but it has been a token gesture at best [...]

(--John Sharp, Conferences and sustainable diversity)

(I've selected just a few lines from his post. Read the whole thing.)

That had a wee bit of resonance for me, let me tell you.

Obviously I am not "marginalized" in most senses. I'm a straight white guy with a CS degree and a software industry background. I have savings to fund my attempt at an indie career. But still, this is exactly the stuff I think about. I'm not in academia; I do not work for a game company; I have not achieved sustainability. Zarfhome Software has never made rent for me for more than a couple of months in any given year.

I submitted Seltani to Indiecade on a whim. (A whim with a $100 submission fee!) When it was accepted, I did the calculation: will this trip be worth it? It's a business decision. Crudely, I was gambling that the contacts and handshakes and business cards I collected would add up to more than the cost of travel, hotel, prep work, and the time I took from other tasks. (Which is, yeah, over $1000.)

You can't measure that outcome on the spot. The payoff is in future projects and potential jobs. I'd like to be optimistic about this, but here's a conference organizer saying he's not. He thinks I wasted that grand. (And, again, I'm one of the folks who can afford to lose it. Plenty of people can't.)

As I said on Twitter -- the most valuable "networking" I did this weekend may have been going up to a Boston compatriot and saying "Hey, your company does iOS work, right? I might need some of that next year." Not game work, just pay-rent work. And I didn't have to go to Indiecade to talk to him; I see him around Boston all the time.

So this is all depressing in various ways. I can still be optimistic, but it's a nervous optimism. Going out to dinner with IF people was fantastic, but what did we talk about? Sustainability. Money. Jobs. Trying to figure out what we're doing with our lives.

(Also community tensions within IF and IF-adjacent groups, which is not the same issue but touches on it. There's been some arguments recently about the role of IFComp in the modern indie-dev world. When IFComp started in 1995, nobody was asking "Should I enter my game in this competition or sell it on my web site for money?" That just wasn't a question on anybody's radar. Things have changed.)

John Sharp's article goes on to talk about positive possible directions. It's not a surrender post. He likes IndieXchange, the pre-Indiecade biz-dev event, which I also liked and found valuable. (It didn't turn me into an instant business success, but there were good talks on marketing and on the dirty details of outsourcing audio for your game.) (I might have to outsource audio for a game someday, right? I can't get away with banging the cheese grater forever.)

There may be more possible paths in the future. I hope so.

And look! I've signed up for GDC in March! The last GDC I went to was in 2012, and that gamble did not pay off. I hung out with friends, it was fun, but was the benefit worth that $700 Summits-and-Tutorials pass? Plus plane and hotel? I think it's safe to say "heck no."

But here I am taking another spin of the wheel. I think the odds are tilted my way now. I've got the more modest Indie-Summit pass -- not that this saves much compared to travel costs. Mostly, it's that I've met more people and done more work, so I'll have a wider base of contact. (I'm bad at meeting people, but I can tell that four years of putting myself out there have slowly accumulated some results. See lists above!) I'll have finished Flashpaper by March -- I'd better have finished it by March -- so I'll have a game to promote.

Maybe I'm stupid, but this is the point in my life when I have to be.

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Videogame Hugo: 2015 potentials

Last month I posted about the idea of a videogame category for the Hugo awards.

A few days later there was a discussion thread on File770 (a prominent SF fandom news blog). The discussion was a good snapshot of community response to the idea.

The biggest objection was that there aren't enough good games to make a category worthwhile. People cited 15 to 25 as a desirable minimum. (The Hugos have a two-stage voting process. So you want at least 25-ish plausible suggestions for "best game of the year", which then get narrowed down to five finalists, which then get narrowed down to one winner.)

The petition that sparked that discussion thread went nowhere. However, I think it's worthwhile to put up a concrete list. The subject will certainly come up again, and I want people to be able to point and say "Yes, look, there are that many games every year!"

I'm going to focus on indie and amateur interactive fiction titles, because that's my field. I've got nothing against big-budget SF games, but you can get a list of those off any game-industry news site. This is the wider field of games which might not be familiar to the non-gaming SF fan. Most, though not all, are short games -- two hours playtime down to ten minutes.

I'm not saying that all of these games are, in fact, Hugo-worthy. I haven't played most of them! I'm gathering highly-rated titles from a variety of sources, including IF competitions and game-jams of 2015. (Special thanks to Emily Short's mid-2015 roundup post.)

(I do not yet include games from IFComp 2015, the big IF competition of 2015. That's still in progress and will be for another month. When it ends, it will certainly add another handful of titles to this post. I'll update then.) (Also still in progress: the Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction.)


Notable and Highly-Rated SF/Fantasy/Horror IF and Narrative Games of 2015:

  • Arcadia, Iain Pears ($)
  • Below, Chris Gardiner ($)
  • Champion of the Gods, Jonathan Valuckas, Choice of Games
  • Chlorophyll, Steph Cherrywell (ParsC)
  • Choice of the Petal Throne, Danielle Goudeau, Choice of Games
  • The Compass Rose, Yoon Ha Lee and Peter Berman, Sub-Q Magazine
  • Delphina's House, Alice Grove (ParsC)
  • Does Canned Rice Dream of a Napkin Heap?, Caelyn Sandel, Carolyn VanEseltine, Danielle Church, Jamie Sandel (AnthJ)
  • 80 Days, Meg Jayanth, Inkle Studios (EXP from 2014) ($)
  • False Mavis, Ted Casaubon (ShufC)
  • Her Story, Sam Barlow (MAR, fairy-tale elements) ($)
  • Leadlight Gamma, Wade Clarke (EXP from 2010)
  • Lifeline, Dave Justus, 3 Minute Games ($)
  • Molly and the Butter Thieves, Alice Grove (ShufC)
  • Neon Haze, Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie, Sub-Q Magazine
  • Oppositely Opal, Buster Hudson (ParsC)
  • PataNoir, Simon Christiansen (MOB from 2011)
  • Photopia, Adam Cadre (MOB from 1997)
  • Ratings War, Eddy Webb, Choice of Games
  • Scroll Thief, Daniel M. Stelzer (EXP from 2014)
  • Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow, Caleb Wilson (ParsC)
  • The Skeleton Key of Ambady, Caelyn Sandel (ShufC)
  • Snake Game, Vajra Chandrasekera and Tory Hoke, Sub-Q Magazine
  • Starry Seeksorrow, Caleb Wilson (ShufC)
  • Terminator Chaser, Bruno Dias (ParsC)
  • To Spring Open, Peter Berman and Yoon Ha Lee (ShufC)
  • Tonight Dies the Moon, Tom McHenry (AnthJ)
  • Versus: The Lost Ones, Zachary Sergi, Choice of Games
  • When the Land Goes Under the Water, Bruno Dias (ShufC)
  • A Wise Use of Time, Jim Dattilo, Choice of Games

Tags on the above:

  • ($): Costs money (all titles listed here are US$10 or less)
  • (EXP from...): Significant expansion of a game released in an earlier year
  • (MOB from...): Mobile port of a game released in an earlier year
  • (MAR): Marginally genre but I'm counting it anyway
  • (ParsC): High-rated entry in ParserComp (IF competition)
  • (ShufC): High-rated entry in ShuffleComp (IF game exchange)
  • (AnthJ): Entry in Antholojam (SF-themed IF game jam)
  • note that Choice of Games titles are available both as apps ($) or free-to-play online

Other suggestions welcome! Comment away.

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What Zarf is up to, autumn edition

Yes, I've been running quiet for the past couple of months. I've been working away on various projects. But soon I will enter a season of furious public activity! While also still working away, because the projects aren't done yet.

First, as I recently posted, I will be at IndieCade to show off Seltani. That's Oct 23-25 in Los Angeles. Extra thanks to Carl Muckenhoupt (Baf of the fondly-remembered Baf's Guide) who will be helping me demo Seltani that weekend.

There's also an IF meetup on Saturday night at the IndieCade Night Games festival. I'll be attending that too.

The WordPlay festival of narrative games and IF is back in Toronto on Nov 7th. I'll be there, along with other stalwarts of the IF scene including Emily Short, Sam Barlow, Christine Love, and (our blog-host) Jason McIntosh.

(Is "stalwarts" an okay thing to call people? I don't always know.)

Let me also mention the Boston IF meetups (at MIT) on Oct 12 and Nov 11. Emily Short will be visiting for the November meeting.


Now the more exciting report: projects in progress.

I showed off a prototype of The Flashpaper War at Boston FIG a couple weeks back. That went great! My table didn't draw enormous crowds -- the perils of demoing a couple of meek ipads amid the hall's obstreperous beeping and flashing. But people kept sitting down and trying it... and when they tried it, they generally sat and read/played through several pages of interactive text. Amid all the beeping and flashing! So that's a good sign.

I must admit that Flashpaper is still only a prototype. (Although it's a much more polished prototype than it was before FIG!) The web page says "Coming later this year," and I intend to stick to that, but there's a lot of writing and adjusting to do before it's ready to go.

You may have seen that the new Apple TV is about to ship, and it will support third-party apps. I'm very excited about this; I've been working through the dev tools to see how it works. (Summary: very similar to iOS. No surprise there.)

I've just finished up a draft of Pocket Storm for Apple TV. Is this not the perfect fit? Push button -- soothing rainstorm audio in your living room. Or cricketsong and distant thunder, if you prefer. If all goes well, Pocket Storm will be among the first wave of apps available when the new TV box goes on sale.

(If you already own Pocket Storm for iOS, fear not -- you'll be able to download the Apple TV version for free! One purchase covers both platforms.)

(I know, "Pocket Storm" isn't the best name for a set-top box app. I couldn't think of anything better, I'm afraid. "Living Room Storm" is all wrong.)

So what else would make a good Apple TV app? I'm thinking that Hadean Lands is probably not ideal. The UI is not built for text input, and while you could attach a Bluetooth keyboard, most users won't. So parser-based IF is probably not going to fly. (Flashpaper, on the other hand... we'll see.)

I'm also taking a look at Meanwhile. I'll have to see how the UI works with a remote control, and of course I'll have to consult with Jason Shiga about it. But it could be sweet.

That's all for now. Keep an eye on this blog for things shipping. I'm eager to get to the shipping part.

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Seltani at IndieCade 2015

A very quick note to say that Seltani has been selected as an IndieCade festival nominee!

(Among many other recent indie wave-makers such as Her Story, Kerbal Space Program, Plug & Play, and Prune.)

This means I will be in Los Angeles for the IndieCade festival. (October 23 to 25.) I will be showing off Seltani. Showing off a MUD in the middle of a modern games festival! I don't even know what that means!

(Well, I've demoed Seltani in public before, so I have an idea what it means. But never on this scale.)

I am proud, humbled, and not a little freaked out. Further details to follow.

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Videogames in the Hugo Awards

This post is not about nomination slates.

The recent excitement around the Hugos has led to record-breaking levels of public discussion and voting. That's good! It's also led to an early start to the "what's worth nominating next year?" discussions. Also good (and I've noted down some recommendations for my own to-read list). But that's not what this post is about either. This is a game blog, so we're going to talk about the possibility of a "Best Videogame" category for the Hugos.

To catch up: the Hugo Awards are the annual awards for best science fiction and fantasy of the year. They originated in 1953. There are a bunch of categories, including Novel, Short Story, Short Dramatic Presentation (TV episodes), and Long Dramatic Presentation (movies). But the categories have shifted over time; for example, a Graphic Story (comics) category was added in 2009.

So how about a videogame Hugo category? Many games are science fiction and fantasy. (I could argue that most videogames have at least some SF or fantasy elements.) (I could also argue that "sci-fi videogames" do not form a genre the way sci-fi books or movies do, but I won't get into that argument here.)

Looking back in history, I find that an "Interactive Video Game" category was experimentally added in 2006. It received very few nominations and the category was dropped before the final round.

But, I venture to say, times have changed and fandom has (slowly, cane-wavingly) changed too. Comics are in -- probably because lots more fans read comics. (I suspect this is because of web-comics.) Are games as widely appreciated by SF fandom? I'm sure they are, because the field of gaming has become so variegated and spread to so many audiences. Not everybody is playing Metal Gear Solid this week -- I'm not -- but an awful lot of people have played a casual web-game or an online board-game or some form of IF or an indie Steam game or, or, or... something.

So I'm willing to say it's time.

I've dipped into a discussion on this topic on Making Light (a fannish blog). (See comments 651, 652, 656, and various thereafter.) I also see that Eleri Hamilton, who I know from Myst fandom, is pulling together a proposal.

(This is not to say she's the only one pulling together a proposal! Fandom is large and I only see a few corners of it.)

Several other questions came up in the discussion. I'll summarize the answers I agree with; the ML thread contains longer and better-argued replies.

What do we call it?

I've seen "Videogame", "Video Game", "Interactive Media", "Interactive Story", "Interactive Experience", "Interactive Fiction". I lean towards "Videogame" just because everyone knows what that means. (Everyone then starts arguing about what it really means, but that's equally true of the other labels.)

How many categories?

Just one, to start with. Hugo categories are currently split by length (running time or word count), but the play time for a videogame is often ill-defined. Game industry awards are sometimes divided by game genre -- "best adventure game", "best shooter" and so on -- but asking a non-gaming-focussed fannish audience to do that is probably overkill. The genre labels have gotten fuzzy these days, anyhow. A single award category is simple; we can refine it later if desired.

Can videogames be nominated for Hugos right now?

Yes, kind of. Games are eligible for the "Dramatic Presentation" categories, if you're willing to pick a running time. However, those categories were meant for, and remain dominated by, TV and movies. The exceptions are stuff like audio plays and theatrical performances. Games, I snobbishly insist, are qualitatively different! I don't think it's a good comparison to put them up against non-interactive media.

There's also a "Related Work" category. Early on in this discussion, I thought it made sense to nominate games for "Related Work" and then move on to a permanent category if they did well. But this doesn't seem to be the way the Hugos work. The category is mostly used for non-fiction -- critical works about SF -- rather than as a "miscellaneous" or "uncategorizable" bin. Graphic novels were very rarely nominated for "Related Work" before the "Graphic Story" category appeared.

How does one go about proposing a Hugo category?

See Kevin Standlee's post from early this year. The short answer is, the Hugos are run according to the rules of the World Science Fiction Society, which can be amended by vote of attending Worldcon members. There's a procedure. It takes a couple of years; the system has lots of built-in hysteresis.

A worldcon committee may, if it wants, invent a one-time category without going through the whole voting thing. (This is how the 2006 "Interactive Video Game" category happened.) So this would be another way to try out the idea.

So what do we do?

Talk about whether it's a good idea. Come up with games that you think would be good nominees for next year. (That means games released in 2015, or which received significant expansions in 2015.) (For the record, Hadean Lands launched in October 2014. Sorry!)

Any proposal, whether to the Worldcon membership for a permanent category or to the Worldcon committee for a one-off, will need to argue two things: there are enough nominees each year for a good contest, and there is enough interest from fandom to get a lot of votes. That's what we have to establish.

What about the Sad Puppies thing?

Dammit I said this post wasn't about that.

Okay, yes. This is the year that a whole bunch of Hugo categories got No Award due to... well, I would say "due to a loophole in the nomination rules". I would also say "Remember Gamergate? Like that, but for science fiction fandom." I would also say "Dammit." The issue is not dead and will certainly infect the 2016 Hugos, although it's not clear if the results will be as severe. (A nominations rule change has been proposed, but that cannot take effect until 2017.)

So it would be bad if a videogame category was tried and then went to No Award because of this mess. However, this doesn't mean we should just drop the issue! To quote from my own reply on Making Light:

...it's awfully close to "be very very still and the assholes might not see you". I'm not interested in letting them dictate my goals that way.

Nor do I expect either the Puppies or Gamergate to die down of their own accord. They'll be "gone" when the world ignores them, which day will come sooner if fandom continues to create, promote, and discuss great SF. This means moving the conversation forward, not hiding from it.

Anyhow, the game-category discussion is probably going to take a while. A 2016 one-off category is possible but it's not the most likely path forward. So we should get the discussion rolling, and hopefully the 2017 nominations fix will be ratified and help stabilize things.

Time and bank balance permitting, I will be at the 2016 Worldcon (MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City). If I'm there, I'll be at the Business Meetings, which is where rule changes are debated and voted on. Let's see what we can do.

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