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Alchemy game notes, circa 2003

Here's a bit of a thing. I happened to look at my "game design" folder, which is of course full of random snippets of text dating back years. The oldest file is from 2003:


Research: enter a book "room", use standard IF search techniques to explores, find "exits" to other pages or other books. Books can be hidden in "real life", or just not indexed in the library. Similarly, a section of a book might not be findable until you find a reference elsewhere, and search for it.

(Library is a real-life room; the books you're familiar with are pulled out, handy. Reading one enters the book "room".)

Alchemical operations form a deep skill tree. As you perform operations successfully, they're added as single action. ("distill alcohol", "resublimate thiotimoline"). Lots of room to explore. Operations have logic, but also exceptions.

Time limit? If you screw up, or take too long, your supplies and tools are restored to their original state -- new day begins -- but you retain your skills. Maybe even get pre-made supplies of stuff you're very familiar with.

Operations take particular amounts of time? So there's an optimization problem, even for skills you've learned. (Ameliorated by pre-made supplies.)

No idea what the story looks like. Something about the reason why you are taking this alchemical test and have an infinite number of retries.

That's all I wrote back then. It's old enough to have MacOS-Classic line breaks instead of Unix/OSX line breaks.

When I started planning HL in mid-2010 I started a new notes file, but I left the old one in place. Obviously some of that old stuff went out the window. Although now I like the idea of books as environments which you "enter" to do research. Maybe I'll try that again someday.

For more fun, here's a snippet from the 2010 notes file:

Planetary types: (A marcher doesn't normally visit these, but they're familiar from the academy and from sailor's stories. The protagonist has never seen one before; he's only visited Gaian lands, and rarely left the Retort except in inhabited places.)

  • Gaian lands: where people can live.
  • Hadean lands: rock, little or no air, "night" sky. (The Moon, Mars.)
  • Helian lands: like Hadean lands, but with a big honking sun. (Mercury.)
  • Erebian lands: like Hadean lands, but covered in ice and with little sun. (Pluto, etc.)
  • Thalassan lands: oceans (of something) and atmosphere. (Titan, probably.)
  • Aeolian lands: only clouds visible. (Jupiter, but also Venus.)
  • Hermetic lands would be fairyland or Atlantis. Places populated by the Wise. The term is from popular fiction rather than science.

All of that is canon, but it's only briefly referred to in the released game.

I'm holding onto the domain as a placeholder. For what, I don't know yet.

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More very quick takes on recent games

It's IFComp time! And I haven't played any of the 58 IFComp games! But I have been playing down my backlog of random Steam walking-simulator-and-other-exploration games. So here are some more notes.

Metrico+: Stylish little platformer which attempts to substitute observation and cleverness for twitch-jumping. I don't think it completely succeeds. That is, it succeeds at avoiding too much reflexology. You have to combine jumps, shots, horizontal and vertical motion, and so on in various ways to solve the puzzles. However, the specific effects of those actions are left for you to determine in each level. This produces a slogging rhythm: every level begins with a bunch of pointless button-flailing as you try to guess what's connected to what. I wish the "infographic" style had been used to convey that information.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Begins with an outright apology for its gameplay flaws. ("This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.") I respect that.

So my expectations were low going in, but I wound up deciding it was quite strong. Remember when I said Everyone's Gone to the Rapture needed one more element? Ethan Carter had the right number of elements to grab me. Pretty scenery, mostly exploration, simple puzzles -- or interactive pacing challenges, if you like. Just enough of them. Story threads that felt disparate but looped together at the end. Surreality.

Ilamentia: Another "bunch of disparate levels" abstract platformer. It brags of having 96 levels; I solved the first and then stopping making progress. I tried five or six other levels, failed at all of them to various degrees. Clearly not on my puzzle wavelength.

NaissanceE: Yet another abstract platformer. This has a thoughtfully minimalist chiaroscuro style: nothing but light, shadow, and cubes. Artfully composed! However, an endless maze of that with no story gets wearing. I eventually hit a point where I had to chase a racing dot, which worked poorly on my controller, and I decided it was time to give up.

The Guest: An unrepentantly old-school first-person adventure. I could have reviewed this in 1998. Okay, in 1998 it wouldn't have been free-roam 3D and it probably would have been a bit longer, but otherwise, yeah.

Anyhow, perfectly pleasant puzzle excursion. Did not overstay its welcome. Many puzzles verged on being arbitrary, but generally on the right side -- I only had to look at one hint. Not much story but so what? Enjoyed.

The Ball: Very much in the first wave of post-Portal physics-gimmick platformers. The gimmick is okay, but the graphics feel a few years pre-Portal instead. The designers try to keep varying the scenery and the puzzles, but there's only so many ways they can mix up their elements, and there's no story to speak of. I found myself getting weary a quarter of the way through; gave up.

(If the later chapters have more elements mixed in, I apologize, but I didn't have the stamina.)

Rise of the Tomb Raider: I wanted more Tomb Raider, and that's exactly what this was. More of the 2013 game. Lots more. I enjoyed all the pieces, and yes, I spent the time to scour every corner of the game world. But by the end I was wishing the game had been half the size for half the price.

I played on easy-combat mode; I would have skipped the big fights entirely if that had been an option. If there are any non-combat acrobatic-climby-puzzle games out there, please let me know. (More acrobatic than Submerged, ideally.)

...I feel like I should talk about the story. (It's credited to Rhianna Pratchett, whom I trust to stay at least a notch above the usual videogame plot-stodge.) The 2013 TR was full of dramatic events, most of which involved Lara Croft's friends and allies dying horribly in front of her. Over and over. Well-written, but a strain to play, honestly.

This iteration avoids that trope, and does some quiet subversion on the TR standards. For example, there's a Lost Tribe who are good guys; quite a lot of the story involves Lara helping and being helped by them. There's a pair of villains who are not only characterized but have some plot arc.

However, these scripted scenes are still embedded in a Tomb Raider game. So on the one hand you have Lara Croft, junior explorer of the world's wonders; and on the other hand you have Lara Croft, bloody-handed slaughterer of armies and destroyer of every antiquity in arm's reach. (The friendly tribe is up against faceless mercenaries and faceless zombie Byzantine warriors. Lara gets to murder scores of both.) (As for the antiquities, we never see Lara close any of the fragile reliquaries and sarcophagi she cracks open.)

Conclusion: AAA gaming is just not kind to the creative writer. I bet you're all surprised to hear that.

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My Obduction nonreview

Obduction is a really good adventure game. You should play it.

I finished the game a week ago and I've had a heck of a time thinking of anything to say. To be sure, my Myst review was written in 2002 and my Myst 5 review in 2010, so the sensible course is just to wait five or ten years and see where Cyan's gotten to. An Obduction review will make an excellent retrospective.

But I do want you to buy the game. (To help make sure Cyan makes it another five or ten years.) So, yeah, it's a really good game and you should play it.

Some of the Obduction posts I thought about writing, but didn't:

Comparing Obduction to Myst. Everybody else has done that. Summary: it's Myst except larger, and also Cyan has gotten better at story and puzzle design. End of blog post.

Comparing Obduction to Riven. Yeah, Riven is also Myst except larger and with better story and puzzle design. So Obduction is pretty much a new game as good as Riven. End of blog post.

Comparing Obduction to The Witness. Problem is, my whole Witness post was just comparing The Witness to Myst. Summary: The Witness really has no interest in being Myst. It's doing something else. Obduction is doing the same thing as Myst only Cyan has gotten better at it. End of blog post.

Talking about what I liked most. Boring and spoilery. I want you to play the game, not read about it.

Talking about what I liked least. It's not a perfect game. The plot is weirdly off-screen, and the couple of times it's thrust on-screen are the scenes where you're most confused about what you're doing. A couple of the puzzles are underclued, and in one case a puzzle's clues become unavailable (so if you didn't take notes, you're in trouble). But these are not large gripes, and you should still play the game.

Talking about the puzzle difficulty. Worth mentioning. Obduction keeps a tight hold on its puzzle mechanics; there are just a few major ones and most of the puzzles are about understanding them. But the game also exercises restraint about how far to take them. It does not take the Witness tack of "push every mechanic until your brain explodes." The result is a fairly smooth ride (although there are some shaky spots, as I said). There is no "that damn puzzle", which I think we can agree Riven has one of (and Witness has two or two dozen, depending on your mood).

Describing the bugs. Good grief, that's what Steam forums are for. Go wallow if you like.

Talking about the shadow. I admit a desire to go on a tear about the shadow. The Witness gives you, without recourse, a male shadow -- tallish, slender, short hair -- probably Jon Blow -- or if not him, certainly not you. Obduction gives you a choice between two shadows. Is that different? It's not much different.

It would be a great expenditure of effort to import the whole Uru avatar-modelling system with body shape and hairstyles and clothing -- plus height! -- just to model the shadow. Perhaps that's silly. But at this point, offering the choice between a 160-pound male avatar and a 120-pound female one feels like a thoroughly inadequate gesture towards player inclusiveness.

(Yes, it happens that late in Obduction you get an exact readout of your weight. It's not my weight, I'll tell you that.)

And so: This is even less a review than most of my not-really-reviews. I suppose I feel somewhat bruised by today's culture of games discussion, where DID THE DEVELOPER LIE is a more central question than what the game is doing and how well it does it. Also HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY CHARGE THAT MUCH. And THE BUGS.

I admit the bugs aren't great. (I suffered from the black-page journal bug, and had to hit a wiki to fill in the holes.) But when I look around, I see a bunch of discussion that I want to back right the heck away from. Thus, all these posts I'm not writing.

If you want to know whether Obduction is worth the money, go take a long walk and think about what kind of games you enjoy. If you enjoy environmental puzzle adventure games, play Obduction. And I'll come back and write a review in a few years, when we've all gotten a better idea of how the next generation of adventure games is playing out.

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Dropbox dropping support for playable HTML

(This has been widely noted, but I wanted to summarize what's known.)

At the beginning of September, some Dropbox users got email:

We’re writing to let you know that we’ll be discontinuing the ability to render HTML content in-browser via shared links or Public Folder. If you're using Dropbox shared links to host HTML files for a website, the content will no longer display in-browser.

(Text copied from a post on the ChoiceOfGames forum -- thanks jeantown.)

Dropbox has posted a more complete summary on their web site:

Dropbox Basic (free) users: Beginning October 3, 2016, you can no longer use shared links to render HTML content in a web browser. If you created a website that directly displays HTML content from your Dropbox, it will no longer render in the browser. The HTML content itself will still remain in your Dropbox and can be shared.

Dropbox Pro and Business users: Beginning September 1, 2017, you can no longer render HTML content.

In other words, in a month (for free users) or twelve months (for paid users), people will no longer be able to play your HTML-based games directly off of Dropbox. They'll either appear as raw HTML or as "download this file" links -- it's not clear which. (Other kinds of files, such as images or CSS files, will not be affected.)

Why are they doing this? I haven't seen a public explanation, but I assume it's because jerks are using Dropbox to anonymously host Javascript malware. Google Drive has announced a similar change.

Okay, you may ask, but does anybody publicize games this way? The ChoiceOfGames forum thread implies that the answer is yes. See also this thread and this thread.

In fact I've done this myself. When I first posted Bigger Than You Think as part of Yuletide 2012, I hosted it on Dropbox for the first seven days. Yuletide has a seven-day anonymity period, and Dropbox was an obvious short-term solution.

I know of games which only exist as Dropbox URLs, notably the creepy-comic Twine game Mastaba Snoopy. It was widely discussed in early 2013, but the only known source was this Dropbox URL. (Which currently redirects to this equivalent URL.) So that's a wee bit of history which will stop working in a month, or maybe twelve months.

To be sure, Mastaba Snoopy will not vanish. You will be able to download it as HTML (from the old URL) and play it locally. It will work fine that way. (In fact, it may work better. I've seen the Dropbox version mess up the game's Unicode something fierce.)

However, that only works because the game is a single self-contained HTML file. An HTML game with included images, sounds, JS/CSS files, or other resources would be harder to fetch. (BTYT included several JS/CSS files.) You'd have to download the HTML, ferret out all the relative URLs, and then download those too. This is always possible (unless the author has really worked to obfuscate the code!) but it may not be trivial.


If you are the author of a Twine game (or other web-based game) on Dropbox, and you have abandoned it, then you're not reading this post. Drat!

(If you're reading this and you care about the future playability of your game, I count that as "not abandoned".)

Your game is not under threat of disappearance, but most casual players will think it is broken. Preservation-minded fans may pick it up and make copies -- probably without your permission, since you're not reading this post. Sorry! Deliberate non-archivability of games is an interesting subject, but chances are high that somebody will download a copy for posterity. I have downloaded a copy of Mastaba Snoopy for my own files.

If you are the author of such a game and you want to keep it easily playable, you have various options for reposting it:

  • Itch.IO: Free. HTML games work fine, although they appear in an iframe. Probably you could launch the frame as a separate window if you tried.

  • Github Pages: If you have a Github account, you can post HTML pages at This is a better fit for open-source projects, although the Pages repository is not required to be public.

  • Free but you need a Twitter account. Intended for Twine games. I believe you can only upload a single HTML file, but I bet you could rig up a scheme where the HTML is on and the resource files (images, JS, CSS) are on Dropbox. Let me know if you make that work.

I've seen people suggest the IF Archive, but this is not a great solution. Speaking with my Archive hat on, we prefer that HTML-based games be uploaded as archives (.zip files). We don't want to be a front-line resource for playing IF; we're just not set up for that.

(We're not enforcing this as a hard-and-fast rule. In particular the IF Competition folders on the Archive contain a lot of playable games. Sorry; a 25-year history makes for a lot of exceptions.)

(It would be interesting if or a similar site gained the ability to download a Twine .zip package off the Archive, unpack and cache it, and offer it as a playable game. Eh? Eh?)

I have a long-held view -- admittedly biased by my long history with the IF Archive -- that IF preservation is deeply tied to the notion of a single-file release format for games. Of course this goes back to the days when you put your .z5 or .gam file up on and that was it; that's what people downloaded.

Years later, we caught on to the idea of making browser-playable IF. That left us in a weird state where authors were expected to release games twice, on a web page (a bunch of files) and on the Archive (a single file). The service helped stitch that divide back together -- you could just upload to the Archive and get browser-playability for free. (Although without stylistic customizability.)

But then Twine turned up, and life got messy again, because the Twine model only envisioned browser playability. Which was clearly sensible; downloading a file in a funny obscure format is obviously the wrong choice. Unless you think about archiving and preservation! Then having a file at a URL makes life so much easier.

And so we wind up back at this blog post. I have no concrete suggestions beyond the unpack-and-cache service I mentioned above. Which, yes, has its own security implications. (The same ones Dropbox faced in the first place.)

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Very quick takes on recent games

Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.

(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)

The themes of this list:

  • Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
  • My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
  • The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.

Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?

Right, games:

The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.

Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)

Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.

Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.

Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.

Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.

Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.

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Very quick takes on recent games

Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.

(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)

The themes of this list:

  • Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
  • My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
  • The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.

Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?

Right, games:

The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.

Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)

Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.

Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.

Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.

Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.

Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.

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Point-of-view in The Witness: design ruminations

I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)

You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)

You are you. The first-person view of Myst, like the second-person prose of Adventure, projects the world around a blank space which you invisibly inhabit. Your character has no voice, no body; your hand is abstracted down to a cursor.

Many adventures after Myst (and several before it) tossed this faceless ideal away with great force. Strong characterization serves most stories better than the invisible avatar -- what a later adventure mocked as the AFGNCAAP. And, of course, the blank protagonist isn't all that universal to begin with, not as long as "unmarked" still means "white, male, straight, not too old, not too fat..." (Yes, I've used the faceless protagonist in my own games. But I don't pretend that it counts as representation.)

The Witness lets you inhabit that blank space -- at first. You have a few moments to settle in and imagine yourself walking around. Then you emerge into the sunlight, and... perhaps you still don't notice your shadow. But when you do, the shadow is tall, lanky, short-haired, trousered, male. It's definitely not me. Is it Jon Blow? I certainly can't think of any other candidate, so let's assume that you play The Witness as a mute Jon Blow.

But why? "You" have no voice or background; the game does no work of characterization. But neither does it allow you to fill in your own. You are left a liminal, uncertain presence.

The game is your view of the world. Again, you initially have no reason to doubt this. The game's art style is not hyper-realistic, but we're all accustomed to visually stylized environments by now. Perhaps it's unusually low-poly for a modern game ("ironically low-poly", one friend commented). But then a lot of subtle work went into the texturing.

I figure the style was balanced to allow panoramic views across large swathes of the island. The Witness is generous with those. (Contrast Firewatch, which mostly hems you in with ridges, canyons, trees, and foliage to avoid the rendering cost of the whole world at once.)

Then you discover one of the game's more subtle puzzles, those of visual perspective. Why do two sticks, a rock, and a distant fence form that shape? It represents nothing in the world, but the game wants you to take notice.

Should we take the world as a purely visual contrivance, then, lacking physical reality? The perspective puzzles incline us that way, but then the island does have a physicality to it. Some clue-objects are bent or broken, implying a physical history: this twig snapped off and fell. A cable used to connect over there. That post was straight until someone leaned on it.

Again, we are left uncertain. The world wants us to believe every leaf was laid just so, but also that it is subject to physical decay. Why?

You act by manipulating the world directly. The first interaction most players encounter in the Age of Myst is a knife switch; you grab it with your cursor-hand and pull it down. From there, the game extends the arms'-reach metaphor in subtle but definite ways: you press buttons, pull chains, hold a lit match. (Plus, of course, the initiating moment: laying your palm on a magical book.)

Your first interaction in The Witness is a panel with a line on it. You drag the cursor along the line to activate it. For adventure gamers, the implication is clear: you reached out and swiped your finger along a touch-panel. (If you are my age, you went "Dzzzzzhhht!" like Kermit the Frog drawing a letter.) And you go on for quite a while, finding panels and tracing lines on them with your finger.

Only, maybe not. You might notice that your shadow, the ambiguous Jon-Blow-or-not, never reaches out to touch anything. According to your shadow, you're just standing motionless in front of each panel. A lazy animator, not bothering to construct the arm-motion? But you can see your shadow-feet shift and your shadow-head turn as you look around. This game does not scant the details.

It soon becomes clear that The Witness consists entirely of these path-tracing interactions. There is not a single lever, dial, or key in the game. Furthermore, you don't have to be in arms' reach to trace a path! The game makes it convenient to stand directly in front of each panel, but you can activate any path you can see. It works from any distance, as long the entire path is visible. (The visual-perspective puzzles hammer this point home, if you overlooked it.)

So we must give up the idea of swiping a finger along a surface. Touch has nothing to do with it. You never manipulate the physical world (if there is one!) in any way(*). Indeed, if you look closer, the island is most unwilling to react to your physical presence. You can hear your footsteps, but you leave no footprints, nor even ripple the surface of a puddle you step in. You cannot brush aside a twig or pick up a bit of paper to read.

You are a ghost, or a shadow of a ghost. Do you interact by observation? Perhaps you are simply recognizing the paths, and the panels react to that recognition. Or perhaps you are playing a game, manipulating it with your mouse or controller? Perhaps there is no metaphor at all.

But if you're a ghost, you're a ghost with eyelids and retinas. (Someone had to point this out to me! Hit the pause button; watch the solar afterimages fade.) And we like immersive metaphors, anyhow.

(* In a couple of places, the game seems to implement "pressure plates" -- triggers that activate when you stand on them. This might be a physical interaction, or it might be reacting to your presence (or shadow!) in some other way; it's not made clear. I'll let it slip by.)

So The Witness leaves us off-balance, uncertain in our presumption of how adventure games work.

We might question whether "adventure game" is the right label at all. Is this island just a pretty picture with abstract puzzles pasted on? No, that description is inadequate. The physical laws of the island may not involve you, but they exist -- sunlight, shadow, reflection -- and you must apprehend them to solve the game. You must consider how buildings connect and how they might have decayed. Those are the understandings of an adventure game. And there are, after all, gates and drawbridges and elevators to play with -- even if you do so by the tracing of control-paths on panels.

These ontological musings do not slow you down, regardless. The puzzles are before you and you work your way through.

(They're brilliant puzzles, by the way. This post is not a review, but I didn't want to leave that out.)

...And then you reach the end-game (or the post-game, maybe, or the epilogue). I said up top that The Witness has "no explanation"? Play far enough and you get, mm, not an explanation, but an indirect trickle of clue. You can make some guesses. If you pass through the post-end-game (post-epilogue?), you find a cut scene which exposes a little more information.

I won't spoil it, except to say that the game's motif is perception -- clarity, perspective, focus. That's the title, right? It (kind of) makes sense that you, the witness, are (sort of) seeing out of Jon Blow's eyes, and your presence is sort of perceptual (but not exactly), and the island is sort of physical (but not really).

But a theory isn't a justification. We can still ask why Jon Blow (the real one) wanted to make a game called The Witness, in which you are a ghost with his shadow. Yes, it's all a thematic package, but why that package? You have to bear the uncertainty through most of that game, after all, before the half-explanations ever appear. If that shadow is discomfiting, you spend a lot of time uncomfortable.

It's not an enticing discomfort. It says: something is wrong here, but don't ask why. It invites you to withhold rather than speculate. This is subjective, I know, but I never reached a point of saying "Aha, now it all makes sense in retrospect!" At best it was "Well, I have a theory which could be thematically consistent with it all."

In the end, I must chalk it up to an aesthetic disagreement. Jon Blow wanted his adventure game to be distancing and not-quite-immersive. He chose a theme and style (and title) which suited that effect. It worked. It's not what I would have done, and that's all I can say about it.

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SFWA eligibility for game writers

SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has announced that game writers will soon be eligible to join. (The rule change goes into effect on August 1.) This applies to writers who work on videogames, RPGs, and tabletop games.

SFWA is a professional society for SF writers (and fantasy, yes, and no you don't have to be American. The acronym is way out of date). Their membership page gives an overview of what they do: support and professional/legal advice for authors, particularly authors just starting out. Also a newsletter and so on. Also SFWA runs the Nebula Awards (the SF awards that aren't the Hugos).

The notion of admitting game writers has been floating around SFWA for a while now. Last September they added Choice of Games to their qualifying markets list, and they've also reported that a broader rule change proposal has been in the works. Apparently it was voted in, so here we are.

The formal criteria are described here. Cat Rambo, SFWA president, has added more detail on her blog. The summary is:

  • Sell a game containing at least 40000 words to a qualified (paying) market.
  • Or sell three games of 10000 words to a qualified market.
  • Or sell (to players) a game of at least 40000 words that makes at least $3000 in a year.
  • Word count includes the narrative content, not instructions or game mechanics.
  • To count, games must have a narrative element, be in English, and be SF, fantasy, or horror.
  • Work done for hire is not eligible.

Rambo notes that the rules are subject to further discussion and change (particularly on that last point). They're feeling their way forward on this.

To compare, the SFWA criteria for prose authors are "one novel of at least 40000 words, or three short stories of 10000 words." Or screenplays or stuff of equivalent lengths. Or a self-published work that makes $3000. So these rules are a direct translation, with the caveats about game mechanics and work-for-hire.

(I get the impression that when they say "not game mechanics", they're thinking of an RPG sourcebook which contains both narrative scene-setting and instructions for playing the game. For a videogame, it would make sense to separate user-displayed text from source code.)

Turns out there's some history to this, which Brian Moriarty mentions on Twitter:

It happened before, briefly, in the late 80s. Only three people (Meretzky, Lebling and me) joined before it was disallowed. (-- @ProfBMoriarty)

I don't know the story behind that. Brian points a finger at Greg Costikyan but I couldn't find discussion from that era. Anyway, it was long ago and no doubt the fannish furor has been forgotten.

(Meaningful pause for someone to recount fannish furor in horrifying detail...)

We'll see. In the meantime, I did a quick word-count and verified that, yes, I qualify for membership! Hadean Lands has about 73000 words of displayable text (out of about 240000 words of Inform source code). For a more accurate number I'd want to discount credits, tutorial, and parser messages, but it will still be comfortably over 40000. And I have passed the $3000 minimum for a self-published work.

So... I'm still thinking about this. The $100/year SFWA dues aren't high, but they're not completely trivial either. But, on the other hand, there are benefits. Plus I'm doing this non-profit thing; I want to keep a toe dipped into all the relevant professional circles, and SFWA now counts as one. And... there's a following-in-the-footsteps aspect which is awfully attractive.

(I should note that many, many game writers are already SFWA members! It's perfectly common for people to have game-writing credits and write novels or short stories. I just happen to be someone who is well-known as a game designer without also having professional writing credentials.)

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Soma: meanderings by a wuss

(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)

I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.

Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.

So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."

I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(🐷). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.

I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.

In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.

So there I am in Soma's underwater base, and the Frictional monster is coming at me again. It's dripping black biomechanical goo this time, but still instantly recognizable. I tried hiding -- pro forma, just to see if I could -- but no, it spots me and shambles in. Whomp!

I wake up -- but wounded: limping, blurred vision. Interesting. And the monster is still there. Hm.

Clearly the designers have backed off from the Piggy soap-bubble stance. Okay, that's fair. Facing the monster down really isn't the intended play experience. So I manage to sneak around the monster and make it to the next room. Explore a while. Find a healing... thing. Makes sense. Getting hurt has consequences but you can recover.

Oh, look, the monster has followed me. I hide. It finds me and whomps me. I wake up wounded. Oh, wait, it found me again. Whomp. Game over. Game over? Yes.

Unfortunately, I am caught in the fork. Playing the fearless Piggy way might have deflated the tension, but I could do it -- I finished Machine for Pigs and had a good creepy time. But bold isn't an option in Soma. Playing the "right" way, hiding from the monster, is tense but it isn't working.

Conclusion: maybe I'm bored with the Frictional monster. After three games, maybe they should have come up with something new?

(Yes, I know Pig Machine was made by a different studio. Doesn't help.)

But, before I delete Soma forever, I think: maybe I'm not the first? Indeed! With a very little bit of Googling:

Wuss Mode: Monsters Don't Attack by The Dreamer

This addon renders nearly all enemies in the main story non-hostile during regular gameplay. Surprisingly, it completely changes the atmosphere of the game, often for the better, since the servants of the WAU quietly patrolling the abandoned halls of Pathos-2 have a chilling poignance to them. [...] Playing it is an incredibly surreal experience, and while I personally prefer the vanilla gameplay, I think for those with weaker countenances, this is certainly a worthwhile way to play. Perfect for wusses who can't take the scares but still want to experience the amazing story and atmosphere of SOMA!

I quote a large chunk of the creator's blurb because I agree and disagree. It is surreal and poignant. The monsters -- not just one, I got far enough to distinguish variations -- are once again pitiable, wretched things. But they're threatening wretches. There is a great difference, I find, between a soap-bubble monster and one that shambles around in your face until you manage to escape it.

To be concrete: it is really hard to sit down at a computer console when there's a howling monster behind you. Even when you know it won't whomp you.

There are also a couple of chase scenes where if you're too slow, you die. The mod doesn't affect those. (I imagine they're not implemented as monsters, but with some other engine mechanic.) But I didn't have too much trouble getting through them.

Back up; re-read that blurb. Note the whole social-signalling issue, where the mod author has to be very clear that people who use this mod are weaker and can't take the scares. (It is, in fact, the stealth mechanics that I couldn't take.) I don't read that phrasing as real contempt -- for a start, the author made the mod. They must have some empathy for me, the prospective user. But they couldn't address me directly, either! I imagine them standing in a crowd of gamer-bro stereotypes, holding up this sparkling mod... but not too high... not too far outside the circle... lest someone mistake them for some kind of... wuss.

Well, I'm happy to speak for them, and to you. Soma is a haunting game. The environments are oppressive and beautiful. The pacing ratchets nicely between exploring in the light and creeping through the dark (but always edging deeper and dimmer). Even if the monsters cannot hurt you, there is tension in where monsters might be, and where they are. And so the game works with this mod. I recommend it.

(To enable Wuss Mode for Soma on Steam, search for it in the Steam Workshop and subscribe; then launch Soma and select "Play Mod". I'm not sure if it's available in the Playstation version.)

I should talk about the narrative, but I don't have a lot to say. I'd already played The Swapper and The Talos Principle (my review) so a story based around identity-and-philosophy-of-AI? Not really new territory.

I will say that Soma manages to tie the player's actions into its philosophical concerns. (Talos didn't do that -- it had a lot of nice writing which never intersected the gameplay. As for Swapper, I'm afraid its story never made much impression on me at all.) Soma's story is a bit scattershot, but it lands a couple of solid hits which have thematic weight behind them. It's horror, but existential horror in the end.

(I will cordially disagree with the designers' decision about the final scene. Shoulda left that right out.)

(Or, okay, left it in but distanced? Third-person? I'm trying not to be spoilery here, but you see what I mean.)

(🐷 Such a shame that David Cameron resigned before I wrote this.)

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Hadean Lands, two weeks in

So, Zarf, how did that launch go?

Pretty good! Hadean Lands has been on sale on Steam for sixteen days now. And three hours. (Am I counting the minutes? Not really, but it's fun to check.)

In that time it garnered several articles about the DLC certificate, notably from Kotaku and (Those two articles interviewed me a bit on the subject.) Emily Short posted a stellar writeup of the game on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I also got a very nice review on ExtremeTech. And of course many other people said positive things.

Thank you!

Extra props to RayganK, who is leading a crew through HL on his Twitch channel. This is very cool! And... Twitch works very badly for me, for some reason, so I've only seen bits of it. They're two sessions in. Good hunting, folks.

But really, how is it selling?

I won't get into hard numbers, but... HL sold a fair number of copies in the first three days. Then the Steam summer sale started, which took the wind out of the sales. Or maybe it was just a three-day launch spike; it's about what I expected either way.

Then the nice reviews appeared, which led to several more days of good sales. Yay! At this point we're settling back down to the long-term tail rate, but I don't yet have an idea what that is.

And yes, to answer the obvious question, I've sold some certificates. A few. Not nearly as many as I've sold copies of the game. That's fine; I worked a lot harder on the game.

Other news?

This past weekend I posted a small update. (Also available on Itch and Humble.) It doesn't affect the game content, but adds some UI features:

  • "Full Screen" menu option. (F11 on Win/Linux, cmd-ctrl-F on Mac.)
  • "Find..." and "Find Next" menu options (ctrl-F/G or cmd-F/G). These let you do a simple text search in the story window. Note that the scrollback is not infinite -- sorry.
  • In the "Preferences" dialog, there is now an option for "Other Font..." This lets you enter the name of any font installed on your system. (Although you have to type it in rather than looking through a list. Enter the name as you would see it in a CSS file -- the game's display engine is HTML, after all.)
  • In the Alchemy Journal window, the list of rituals now shows "(*)" to mark rituals that you've learned but not yet tried. (Same as the RECALL RITUALS command in the story window.)
  • Fixed a bug where a formula description in the Journal window might not be updated when it should be.

(Due to the nature of Inform 7, I will probably never update the game content of the Steam release of HL. Any change would inevitably wipe everybody's save-game positions, and that just isn't acceptable for a Steam game.)

And that's the current color of the ritual bound, as it were. At this point I've done everything to Hadean Lands that I ever planned to, and more; it is entirely and completely shipped.

(Except for that bit of the KS reward that I still owe a few backers... yes, I know.)

I'm finishing up a contract project this month, and then it's back to thinking about Designing A New Game. Since I'm a game designer and all.

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The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation: a new nonprofit

Here's something new!

Today we are announcing the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF), a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the software and services that underlie modern IF.

The web site ( has all the information. But the quick overview goes like this:

For the past 25-ish years, IF has been primarily a free hobby supported by free-time volunteers. This is great; it's organized around a community (or communities) rather than being pinned to one company's fate. But it's also a weakness. People's free time varies. Services and tools go unmaintained.

The goal of IFTF is to support these efforts; to provide an umbrella organization that can manage projects when the original creator doesn't want to; and to be a visible donation point for benefactors who want to support IF.

(To be clear, IFTF does not plan to directly support creators or become a paying market for IF. The "technology" in the title means tools, services, and web sites.)

Our first project involves assuming stewardship of IFComp, lending the event (and its website) the legal and financial backing of a formal organization. Jmac will still be in charge of IFComp, but he will now do it wearing an IFTF hat. And IFComp will now (through the parent organization) own its own web-site code and copyrights and so on.

Our plans for the near future include support for Twine and doing a study on accessibility of existing IF tools. Beyond that, well, we'll have to see how much money comes in.

Who are we? A bunch of IF fans, authors, and people generally known in the community:

  • Chris Klimas (Twine, Blue Chairs)
  • Flourish Klink (Muggle Studies)
  • Jason McIntosh (IFComp, The Warbler's Nest)
  • Andrew Plotkin (Glulx, Hadean Lands)
  • Carolyn VanEseltine (ParserComp, Ollie Ollie Oxen Free)

We also have a large advisory committee drawn from across the various IF worlds.

I could burble on about this project, because we've been swinging at it for several months and the ideas are flowing rapidly. But today's the day we announce it, so I'll stand back and let the news percolate.

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Hadean Lands is now up on Steam

You can buy HL on Steam. That is the whole blog post.

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Bring Out Your Dead: Flashpaper

A few weeks ago Emily Short declared the Bring Out Your Dead game jam, an event dedicated to sharing our abandoned projects and failed experiments.

The jam opened this evening; submissions remain open until the 24th. I see 31 entries already, including works from Alan DeNiro, Bruno Dias, Adri, Cat Manning, Sam Ashwell, and this honorable blogger.

I posted... the first prototype of The Flashpaper War! And the second prototype too. (Playable on web pages. I've also done iPad prototypes of the game, but posting those isn't really possible. You're missing some cute animations, is all.)

I said a year ago that Flashpaper would be my next IF project. And I still intend that to be true! I built these prototypes last year and demoed them in private; I showed a version at Boston FIG as well. But they just didn't work out, so I scrapped them and started from scratch.

(And then I had to spend some time on paying work, and some more time working on the Steam release of Hadean Lands... which is this Monday, by the way. Just thought I'd say.)

The start-from-scratch plan is still marinating. I have plans. They may even see daylight this year... but for the moment, enjoy these Flashpaper prototypes.

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Hadean Lands: update available on Humble and Itch

Hey! I am back from Balticon, and so it's time for the HL release train to rumble into motion. Here's the first stage:

I have posted a new release of Hadean Lands to my Humble Store and Itch.IO pages. This is the new Lectrote-based app, for MacOS, Windows, and Linux, with autosave and integrated map and journal windows.


Bug reports are very welcome. Any bug I fix before the Steam launch is a win.

This release includes both a native app and the bare HadeanLands.gblorb game file, so you can play HL on any Glulx interpreter. (But you don't get the dynamic map and journal if you play that way.)

If you have saved games from the original (2014) release of HL, they are not compatible with this release. Sorry! I've stuck the original HadeanLands-2014.gblorb in the package too, so if you really want to go back to your old save files, it's possible.

(The differences between the current 2016 release and the old 2014 release are small. A few typos, a couple of fixes for obscure ritual corner cases, some improvements to parser disambiguation.)

Here's the important announcement: On June 20th, the price is going up! When HL launches on Steam -- that's June 20th -- it will launch at a price of $12 US. On that day, I am raising the price on the Humble and Itch stores to match. (The iOS version will remain at $5.)

This means that you have three weeks to buy the new version of the game at the old price. Think of it as a secret preparing-for-Steam sale.

Obviously, it's not a secret secret that the game is still available for $5. This is the Internet and you're reading it. But it's a fine line between "I underpriced HL when I originally released it" and "you're jacking up the price on us, you jerk." I don't want to get into that argument on the Steam store page for HL. My position there is "This is a $12 game." Keep it simple, keep it focussed on the Steam launch.

Okay, what else is going on...

If you've looked over the Steam store page you've probably noticed the DLC! Yes, Hadean Lands will have DLC, and no -- I'll spill the joke right away -- it's not extended game content. It's the Hadean Lands Solo Adventurer Pledge Certificate. That is, you can pay extra money for a certificate that you sign promising not to look at hints. Purely optional, I assure you.

The certificate will only be available through Steam. I've put up a detailed explanation on the DLC page. So far, comments are running 100% for "clever idea"... okay, that's 100% of one comment. Still, a positive response. Might even make me some extra money.

Speaking of commentary, Hadean Lands was discussed in three Xyzzymposium posts recently:

(These posts discuss the nominees for the XYZZY Awards in those categories for 2014. HL won all three of those categories that year, along with Best Puzzles.)

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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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