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More 2017 IGF nominees

More assorted comments on games!

Some of these were honorable mentions for the Narrative award; some were listed in other categories; some were games that just struck me as particularly nifty in some way.

(See Monday's post for the six Narrative nominees.)

Again, I had access to free review copies of these games, although some of them are games that I bought with my own money. (I was also a Kickstarter backer on one, Neptune Flux.) They appear in (roughly) the order that I played them.

In this post:

  • Rusty Lake: Roots
  • Able Black
  • Neptune Flux
  • She Who Fights Monsters
  • Islands: Non-Places
  • Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation
  • Mu Cartographer
  • Inside
  • Burly Men at Sea
  • A Normal Lost Phone


Rusty Lake: Roots

You explore a creepy family's genealogy in their creepy house, down through the generations. I enjoyed this series back when it was Flash room-escape games. ("Cube Escape" was the original series title.) The author has kept the same puzzle style, but revamped the formula for mobile by wrapping up a bunch of escape "chapters" as one game.

I still enjoy them. The author is good at the creepy-surreal tone, and the puzzles have enough variety that they don't feel repetitive. There's a postgame puzzle sequence -- not quite what you'd call a metapuzzle, but it gives a really nice "ooh more to explore" feeling to the experience.

The one caveat is that the creepy sometimes degenerates into sophomoric nudge-wink innuendo. To be fair, the series always had a tendency towards cheap body-horror shock -- chopped-off fingers and popped-out eyes. Now that's been extended to include childbirth and wanking jokes. Is that worse? I roll my eyes more, definitely.

Able Black

I always love a mystery-interface interactive story, and I enjoyed this one. The visual design was striking and the story was pretty good. It's the "AI humanity test" story -- a SF trope which I admit is getting seriously overused in the past couple of years of gaming -- but it's well done.

The weak point were the puzzles, which were weak and unthematic. They did not feel like assessments that the android protagonist would undergo; neither did they feel like allegorical challenges within the theme of developing emotion and empathy. They didn't build on each other in an interesting explorable way, or with a metapuzzle. They were just a bunch of randomly-selected riddles thrown in for pacing. Pacing is important, but this is not the right way to go about it.

On the other hand, the game redeems itself somewhat in the "postgame" (whatever you call the puzzles after the five main chapters). I only got a little way into these, but they were integrated with the story and seemed to be interestingly explorable. Although, on the other hand yet again, the dexterity challenge was more of a nuisance than was warranted.

Neptune Flux

You operate an undersea waldo, collecting resources to preserve humanity after some kind of civilization-destroying event.

This is a puzzle game, but it's more of a homebrew action-adventure than a simple Myst clone. Oh, I suppose action-adventure is the wrong term -- no fighting, no jumping -- but you have a space to roam in and a couple of systematic tasks to occupy your time in between completing the main story beats.

It sounds like padding when I put it like that, but in fact those tasks pace out the game pretty nicely. It's still a short story, no question. But it's a short story that lets you poke around at your own pace; you can decide whether to rush to the next objective or scour the sea floor for a while.

(The traditional first-person adventure game would handle that pacing by flooding you with visuals: detail, detail, detail. And, you know, I'm a sucker for that. But there are other approaches, and this one is perfectly valid.)

All that said: the story does not work particularly well. It's trying to hand you a lot of concepts -- a post-catastrophe world, your job, your mother, AI, failed space colonies, alien artifacts, shipwrecks from various periods of history. But none of these really have a chance to settle in or feel real. I suppose this is where more visual detail would have helped! Or more game mechanics, or more characters... more engaging voice actors... more of anything to anchor the story. Lacking those, the story beats fail to connect up or have impact.

I feel like the designers tried to take a moderate approach -- just enough of everything -- but the total falls short.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Neptune Flux.)

She Who Fights Monsters

Last year I had trouble evaluating Undertale because Final Fantasy just isn't a big part of my gaming history. I recognize the tropes, but the way that the game riffs on them largely go over my head. Also, it's enormous so I never saw the thing as a whole.

SWFM is a simpler and shorter game with the same approach. Which is good, on the one hand, because I finished it and I pretty well understand what it's doing with its JRPG riffs. But, by the same token, it's less ambitious.

The topic is child abuse, and the game tackles it by means of traditional JRPG gameplay. That's interesting. And the story is clear and honestly offered. But the game doesn't do a whole lot with it beyond the basic concept of "let's present an emotional contrast using JRPG tropes". (Contrast, that is, between Jenny's fantasy life in games and her wounded reality.)

Perhaps I just wanted more story arc for Jenny. Her path in the story is essentially reactive and static. The new-game-plus options are trying to open this up, I think, but they feel awkwardly tacked on. The player is asked to re-experience (much of) the game, but in a distanced lens-of-memory way. The repetition mutes the impact. Or, I should say, the frame is inside out: I want the story to begin with mature Jenny reflecting on her history, and then ramp upwards to the raw impact of her early life. That's the "traditional" way you'd tell this story. But then of course the "final choice" of how you live your life would come at the beginning of the game, which is weird. I don't know! It's a hard problem.

Islands: Non-Places

That was a thing. It was just my kind of thing. 11/10 best puppy.

I'm not sure what else I have to say about this! It's a series of wordless images -- snippets of the urban landscape -- which you are invited to provoke into some kind of reaction. When you succeed, you move on to the next one. It's not a storybook; it's not a story at all; but it's involving and entirely charming.

I am going to tie this back to the genre of nonsense children's art: Graeme Base, David Wiesner, Shaun Tan. Nonsense which embodies a wordless looking-glass-logic. That's what this is. Not entirely new in videogames (anybody remember Haruhiko Shono?) but we can certainly use more of it.

Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation

This is a promo for an episodic game. I saw the Kickstarter go by but I didn't investigate it at the time. Now I see why people are talking about it. It's a smart take on the "text adventure" idea.

You wake up in a dark place with only a computer terminal to connect you to the outside world. You have to steer your friends through laboratory/complex/base by hacking on the computers that they connect you to.

If I put on my IF theorist hat, I would say that it's not equivalent to a full-on parser-based IF game. This is not a complaint; Code 7 goes off on its own thread, exploring the idea of a computer CLI rather than an object-based world model. That is entirely appropriate for the story it wants to tell. And it finds appropriate explorable mechanics within the CLI concept: the computers have a consistent (but expandable) set of commands, and the database search is a uniformly-available choice which the player can go back at will. There are also hacking scenes (which use a virtual map as a chase/puzzle environment), and scenes where the characters are chased by robots (same idea, but on a real-world map).

Altogether, a great pile of gameplay. Very polished presentation, too. My only complaint is that the real-time chase segments were a bit rough. The final hacking challenge took me a lot of tries -- enough that it wound up feeling tedious, rather than thrilling.

Now, the story is very old hat indeed -- a pile of sci-fi cliches. (With lanterns hung on them.) But the design is interesting, and the authors have the opportunity to take the story to more interesting places in future episodes.

Mu Cartographer

Excellent and indescribable!

I realize Mu Cartographer is pretty much aimed at my hot buttons: it's the love child of an abstract fiddly-toy and an explorable puzzle box. With bits of narrative about a psychogeographical landscape. I won't go so far as to say it's a story, but there's enough narrative text to provide a sense of place. Without that, it really would be an entirely abstract puzzle.

(Okay, there are snapshots of famous real-world landmarks. But those wouldn't sell sense-of-place on their own.)

My design quibble is that the various tasks aren't well balanced. There are three general categories of Things To Do (after "understand what to do".) One is pure grind (unless I missed a clue?) The second is easy (you can go straight to the solution); the third is hard (requires experimentation but you can tell when you're close). So you go back and forth between slog and non-slog, which makes the game pacing uneven. I finished it, but I felt that I'd spent too long on the job -- that is, too much blind-hunting time. Not the fun kind.

But this is a quibble. I enjoyed the heck out of this and would play six more just like it. ("Just like it" in the sense of each being completely different and unique, of course.)

Inside

A moody monochrome platformer, which is a genre. This is a beautiful example of that genre. The artwork takes a spare, minimal style and lifts it to breathtaking levels. Backgrounds, animation, lighting -- gorgeous.

The platforming mechanics are familiar terrain, but well-executed. You start with running and jumping, and move on to several other mechanics. These are (mostly) well-introduced and then mixed up in (mostly) reasonable variations; there's plenty of variety to keep your interest. Variety, heck -- the game physics achieves some brain-twisting weirdness.

The strength of this game is visual (of course) and... I don't want to say "world-building". The pieces do not fit together to build a world. But each piece is, individually, razor-sharp -- a lucid shape of game mechanics, scenery, and visual tone which conveys a situation.

The weakness of this game is that sometimes you just have no idea what it's trying to get you to do. You can screw around until you figure it out. I did. But you might die six times in a row while not learning anything. It's just a little too eager, sometimes, in introducing a new mechanic that's hidden in the scenery. Or maybe the scenery is a bit too distractingly artistic.

(They usually add enough blinky lights to clue you in, but not always.)

Inside is getting a lot of chatter as a superlative narrative game. It is a superlative game. But not narrative. Sorry! A narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. This has a starting point and a stopping point. That's not narrative.

As I said, the pieces don't fit together. Wordless platformers develop character, if they ever do, by giving you short-term goals which add up to game-spanning achievements. This game has the short-term goals, but they don't add up to anything. "You kept running." Not running to anything, or from anything. The threat in any given scene is clear, but you know no more at the end than you did at the beginning. I'll grant a thematic consistency -- the game is about control, and maybe that speaks to the platformer genre. But theme is not enough.

I loved Inside but it did not speak to me. It has a deep willingness to be nastily perverse, to bother the player. I admire that, and I've written works in that mode... but it's not the same as narrative.

Burly Men at Sea

Three burly sailors go on an odyssey. Then, if you like, they do it again!

It is undeniably adorable. The interaction is playful and distinctive -- more so when I got the iPad version. (Mouse control just doesn't suit the thing.) The writing is simple but sharp; I was immediately able to hear the characters' voices.

The visual design is great. The soundtrack is great (and makes me laugh). There's a nifty gimmick where you can buy any run-through as a printed storybook.

I feel like the game falls short of greatness, however. It asks for repeated play-throughs, but it doesn't particularly reward them. Scenes have first-time and subsequent-times variations, but no more than that. (That I saw.) They don't build on each other as you discover more of the map.

If the third run-through added as much as the second -- and so on, to some higher purpose -- this would have been one of my favorites of the year. As it is, it is a delightful toy that runs down too soon.

A Normal Lost Phone

  • (Accidental Queens / Rafael Martínez Jausoro, Estelle Charrié)
  • IGF entry page

A database game presented as the cell phone of a teenager in small-town America. As you explore the photos, email, text messages, and so forth, you uncover layers of Sam's life and how the phone came to be lost.

I expected this to be a fairly static environment. But you discover passwords and so on as you play, each of which unlocks a new section of the game. There aren't many of these; the story could be described as four gated "chapters" plus an epilogue. But then, the game is quite short overall, so it's not out of balance. The "puzzle" moments are all plausibly different, which wouldn't be possible in a longer game of this sort.

The designers do a good job of packing high school life into the non-linear environment of a phone. Exploration is gated by passwords, as I said -- but even within those chapters, you necessarily encounter the story piecewise. Messages and email are grouped by person, so you can't just browse Sam's entire life chronologically. This gives a nice putting-the-pieces-together feel even above the puzzle structure.

I won't be spoiling much if I say that the narrative turns into a coming-out story. The later sections involve a dating app and a support web forum. Again, these manage to convey a lot of information -- perhaps to the point of didacticism, but then I'm not close to the topic. If you are younger or these issues are personal to you, I think you'll appreciate the depth of detail.

The result is sweet and doesn't outstay its welcome. My only quibble is that the "American" setting is shaky -- not so much the character voices, which seem fine, but in random details like European date formatting and implausible town names.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

2017 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 (early March, San Francisco, expensive). I was again invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.

This year, I also took part in the first-phase judging -- sampling a list of some 670 games of games, commenting on them, and passing recommendations up to the second-phase juries. So I have notes on lots of games!

The narrative nominees:

  • Ladykiller in a Bind
  • 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
  • Virginia
  • Orwell
  • Event[0]
  • One Night Stand

In this post, I'll discuss these six games. In my next post, I'll talk about some of my other favorites from the candidate list.

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. While I looked at a lot of games, I concentrated on the story games and narrative experiments. I don't feel like I have a broad enough view of indie gaming to talk about "best of the year".
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.)

Before I begin: I loved all these games. They were all high on my personal list during judging. I also loved many of the other entries!

This was a seriously hard year to judge. I don't mean it was a tight race; I mean... every game was on a completely different track. I was trying to compare text-dense games with completely wordless games. I was trying to compare visual novels with cinematic first-person games. At one point I was sitting there thinking "Which is more important to me -- good porn, real-world politics, or experimental film?" It's an unanswerable question! I wouldn't give up any of them!

Furthermore, all of the games were interesting -- which is to say, contentious in some way. I get that not everybody wants sex in games, or real-world politics in games, or (for that matter) experimental wordless film techniques in games. Every game on this list came in for some design criticism during the jury discussion. Nobody liked all the top nominees. You will see my pros and cons below, both.

In the end, I consulted my feelings and turned in a list of votes. But in a different month -- on a different day -- I might have put a different game on top.

(This post is not my voting order. I will discuss the games in the order that I played them.)


Event[0]

  • (Ocelot Society / Leonard Carpentier, Emmanuel Corno, Sergey Mohov)
  • IGF entry page

An adventure game in which you explore an abandoned starship. Your primary means of interaction is by talking to the shipboard AI. You do this by typing at the computer terminals that you find. Which is to say: this is a parser-based text adventure. I am very pleased with it, and not just for that reason. (Although a parser game always makes me happy.)

To be clear, this is not a traditional Zork-style IF text adventure (where you type commands from a conventional-but-extendable verb set). Nor is it a pure conversation game, which tries to simulate talking to a person. It's a hybrid. You can talk about any topic -- you're talking to an artificial person, after all. But you're trying to do things on the starship, and that means asking the AI to do them for you. You ask it to open doors, for example. But you have to stretch the command boundaries as you explore... so you get the conventional-but-extendable business after all.

The game takes its core mechanics -- looking at things, and then typing terminal commands -- with absolute conviction. Everything you do fits into that model, with a satisfying range of discoverable variation. If the UI had wavered and let you open a box or pull a lever with your hands, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well.

Free conversation input is of course a heck of a mechanic to wrestle with. Using it for a goal-oriented puzzle game is worse. The IF scene regards free dialogue as maybe usable for goalless character exploration; anything beyond that tends to bring up awful memories of Starship Titanic (1998, billed as a giant technological leap in NPC conversation systems; wasn't.)

This game, as far as I can tell, does not try to be a giant technological leap. (Perhaps the authors will tell me I am wrong, but...) It uses a standard approach: lots of keywords, a bit of pattern matching. I frequently caught the AI misparsing my input because it saw a keyword and ran away with it.

But it works, because the designers have put in reams and reams of effort. Not just on random topics (although there's plenty of that), but on contextual topics to keep the player moving forward. If you don't know what you're supposed to be doing, you can blather haplessly at the AI and it will put you back on the right track. It may be subtle or off-handed; it may just mention a topic that you missed. But it works.

(At least, it worked for me!)

The other nice bit are the broad hints that the AI cares about your phrasing. You can treat the AI as a topic index: just throw verbs and keywords at it. (That's what I did in Starship Titanic.) But it feels worthwhile to type complete sentences and say "please" and "thanks". Not because it gets better results -- but because the game politely asks you to.

Anyway. It's not a perfect game. The story, as SF, is rather thin. Plus I missed a lot of what the story was trying to convey, because I wasn't moved to trawl the AI about random background topics. And I got to a non-ideal ending because I wasn't sure what a particular command would do at the end. (It went boom. Should that have been clear in advance?) But it was a satisfying experience anyhow!

Recommended, for conveying its story entirely through its chosen mechanisms.

Virginia

Oh, the arguments over this one. It's a medium-short narrative work which is wordless and uses strictly presentational interactivity. A daring combination!

(In the IF Competition, we have a special Golden Banana award for the game with the widest spread of high-vs-low votes. Virginia was definitely the IGF's Golden Banana candidate this year.)

There are lots of wordless narrative games, but they generally give you plenty of agency at the beat-by-beat scale -- you have puzzles or at least exploration goals to tangle with. So you have a sense of expressivity through the protagonist's actions; you are achieving things. Virginia skips right past all of that. You have moment-by-moment agency (walking around, looking at things) but the narrative proceeds without giving you much more than a "next scene" interaction. Sometimes, not even that. You can collect flowers but that's entirely on your own account.

And then, on top of that, it's a character story with no dialogue.

You have to be willing to go with the game on this, and I won't blame you if you don't. But I think it works really well. Virginia adapts the visual language of cinematography better than any other game I can think of, simply because it's entirely that language -- the cinematography isn't used as mortar between puzzles, dialogue scenes, or chunks of browsable text. Nor does the cinematography clash with the interactivity. A thematic transition will occur when you see an object; your attention is in the right place for it. Abbreviated scenes give you just enough time to look around. That sort of thing.

The story concerns a (black, female) FBI agent, circa 1992. You are sent with a partner to a small town in Virginia. (Hardcore X-Files and Twin Peaks fans will have to cover those narrative connections.) The mystery is a missing person, but (of course?) this is not a detective puzzle game.

So what is it? The narrative is, necessarily, a bit ambiguous. Not entirely -- some of the plot is meant to be clear, and is. But there's quite a bit of dream sequence, hallucination, flashback, and allegory; the designers are happy to let them blur into each other around the edges. With no dialogue or voice-over, you're left to put the pieces together, will you or no.

Yes, there are seams, and yes it leans on hallucinatory surreality more than it probably should. (Again, Twin Peaks fans may disagree.) But it's energetic, it's sincere, and it conveys a lot of emotion in its stylized way. I liked it.

Orwell

Another database game! (I like this game format -- have since 1986.) But a pointed one. As the title implies, the database is a universal surveillance system run by the government. (Of a fictional Ruritanian nation, but that's thin drapery.) You are invited to be a volunteer investigator for the system, looking into a political bombing in "Freedom Plaza". The gimmick is that you are the human conscience of the system; it sees nothing until you decide to upload it. But, and on the flip side, your uploads are entirely contextless; you can upload one line of a conversation to makes someone look guilty or innocent. Truth is what you decide.

This game made me uncomfortable, and not for the reasons you might expect. It's last year's debate, see. An argument that a universal surveillance state is bad (or even good) based on an exploration of the effects? That's rational politics. We're past that now. (Relevant US and UK headlines omitted in despair.)

But I shoved the real world into a corner of my head... temporarily... and played through.

On its own terms, this is one smart construction of a game.

The gameplay comes in two basic phases: you search everything you have access to, then decide what to upload. (Uploading gives you access to more stuff, as the System expands its search to more targets. I mean people.) Both phases have just enough depth to be interesting without (much) risk of leaving the player stranded.

Search involves going through the game's simulated web pages, and (later) phone-taps and computer root-kits. You have to do a bit of clicking around to find everything; the UI cues you when a page needs more searching, so you won't get stuck. On each page, potential key phrases are highlighted. This is the decision phase; you can upload a chunk or mark it irrelevant. Sometimes two chunks contradict, and then you can only upload one of them. Again, the UI marks pages where you have work to do. The story advances when you've uploaded enough data for your government handler to arrest somebody or otherwise take action.

Thus, a potentially bewildering situation is constrained to a tight and reasonably clear model. It supports some nice variation -- technical hitches, a couple of real-time sequences, and twists at the end which I will not spoil. This suffices to keep the game fresh through a medium-short story of five chapters and about five hours of play time (my clock).

The weakness, I would say, is the early chapters of the game, which drop you in without much guidance as to your role. The System's goal is perfectly clear -- to suck up all data about everybody. (As personified by your smarmy handler, who reacts to every upload with gleeful suspicion.) And of course the game only progresses as you indict people. But I wasn't sure how much to care. Was it worth discarding evidence to protect this character or that one? Should I feel guilty about ruining their lives, or just play forward and see where the game was heading?

This laxity is more or less resolved by the end, which gets more personal and then offers you an explicit game-ending choice. (Nicely presented within the model you have learned.) But players may be turned off by the (apparent) uninvolvement up front. Of course, this is the whole point -- you are playing the disinterested all-powerful observer. Could the game pull you in without sacrificing that point? I'm not sure.

(Also, every time I decided someone was conspiring, more evidence turned up proving I was right. Is the engine conspiring to rewrite history for me, or am I just good at picking up cues? I would have to replay the game to be sure.)

Overall, I'm really impressed how this lays down a game model and then builds a story out of it. The actions you learn at the beginning remain consistent through the game, but they grow in important and relevance as the story progresses. This is not an easy trick. And then the story and characters are solid. A bit hammy, perhaps, but good enough to pull you through to the end.

One Night Stand

This is a short visual novel in the slice-of-life genre: you wake up naked in a strange girl's bedroom. You have a hangover and no clue how you got there.

(To be clear, my life has no slices that look remotely like this. I'm not very familiar with the visual novel genre, either, for that matter.)

The story has no genre twists (that I discovered!); it's a straightforward presentation of an awkward conversation. You can aim for more awkward or less awkward. You can snoop around to try to clue in about what happened. You can be gentlemanly or jerkly. Any way you cut it, the scene ends in about ten minutes and then you're on your way home.

This being the case, the game flies entirely on its writing and presentation. These do very well. The writing is convincing. (Somehow very, very British -- even before the girl uses the word "whilst" in cold blood.) The art uses rotoscoped animation (hand-drawn from live video, clearly) which is both charming and extremely expressive; the girl's face and body language carry as much weight as the dialogue.

The game offers a checklist of a dozen endings. I replayed to see three of them, but I didn't feel compelled to find the rest. The game structure wears a bit thin on repetition: many of your obvious choices are cut off and pulled back to the main story-thread. It's not that there are no interesting branches; rather it turns out that they're determined by the intervals where you're looking around the bedroom. You can look at just a couple of items at a time, and each one opens up a subject for the following conversation interval. So it's a more subtle structure than I expected, but searching it thoroughly would require a lot of experimentation. It would also require playing a bunch of unpleasant roles (the snoop, the bully, etc) and I just didn't want to go there.

At any rate, this tries to do something simple and constrained, but pulls it off with style.

Ladykiller in a Bind

A full-length visual novel about a high school graduation cruise. This is not to say that it is a slice-of-life story about high school. It's... well, it's not SF/fantasy; nor is it realistic contemporary fiction. I'm pretty sure the genre is anime, which is to say a sort of over-the-top implausible melodrama which doesn't pretend to be realistic but also doesn't include explicitly fantastical elements.

(Obviously there's SF/F anime too, but that's another genre again. Yes, there's a reason I'm off on genre again.)

So, in this case, we have twins swapping places, genius kids, millionaire kids, pirates, hackers, a voting game with a five-million-dollar prize, implausibly baroque social entanglements, and implausible amounts of baroque sex.

...Because the game is also smut. It is excellent smut. It features a diverse cast of characters -- I mean diverse in their attitudes, goals, and sexualities as well as their origins. Some of them want to bone you, and you can pursue these relationships or not. The sex scenes are themselves diverse, educational (if you have not encountered that diversity in your own life), well-written, and (not incidentally) really really hot.

Okay, it's good writing and it's good erotica. Is it a good game? I cannot answer this without talking about what I want out of games, which is complicated.

When I pick up a visual novel (or choice-based game in general), I tend to wrong-foot myself by asking "What am I trying to accomplish here?" Because of course the genre-convention answer is "Why ask me? Pick one of several available goals and pursue it, or, you know, just play and see what happens."

Not that these genres can't involve difficult challenges, or even explicit puzzles! They can; but that's something the author decided to add. (Just as, when we first talked about "puzzle-free IF" in the 90s, puzzles were something the author decided to omit.)

In fact Ladykiller has a couple of explicit challenges. You must try to keep people from suspecting your secret; you can try to win that social voting game. But these challenges mostly exist to serve the story framework. (E.g., the suspicion mechanic pushes you to interact with the character who can clear your suspicion stat.) The vote system, whether you care about it or not, is also currency for story entanglements. And the whole presentation of the game supports you thinking at the level of branching story outcomes. The game-mechanical stats are kept visible, and story choices are explicitly labelled with rewards and penalties. Story threads are tracked in scenes ("character X: scene 3 of 5") and you are regularly asked which thread you want to make progress on.

Again, this is all genre convention. Why am I going on about it? Well, as I've said, I haven't played many visual novels. Ladykiller is the first large one I've finished. So I'm trying to sort out what I think about them! (And you, lucky reader, get to follow along. Or else you rolled your eyes and bailed out four paragraphs ago. You decide.)

I think... I have never been entirely happy with the degree of control that choice-based games offer. A game that puts me into a single storyline: that's fine. The author dictates the story level, I control the moment-by-moment level. But when the core of the game is letting me steer the story branch-by-branch and chapter-by-chapter, I find that I'm not entirely on board with the options that are offered. I can get in the ballpark of what I want to do, but it's not quite there.

In my Ladykiller play-through, I wound up boinking three characters. I decided that X was a "never doing that again" experience; Y was "this was a very educational fling, thank you"; Z was "I have a giant crush on you and wish to keep you." And the game almost supported that. I wound up with an ending where X vanished and I got a negotiated OT3 relationship with Y and Z. And that's fine as narrative; it followed from the protagonist's scenes. But it wasn't actually what I wanted out of the story! The protagonist was way more interested in Y than I was, and I had no way to express that.

I could play another run, try to find "better" ending. That's what these games are built for -- exploring the potential space. But I'm never quite interested enough to spend the time. And that's my problem with choice-based games in a nutshell.

(Admittedly, the excellent smut is a strong motivation to replay, in this case...)

(I'm sure someone will argue that the negotiation between player control and author control is completely on-theme for the game. I would respond (a) it's not a negotiation after the author ships the game, I know that rodeo, kid, and (b) don't be a smartass. Although, okay, you're not wrong.)

Anyway. End of analytical tangent. Ladykiller is a solidly-constructed entry in the world of choice-based narrative IF. It is thoughtful and literate erotica and it's a lot of fun. I don't think it's my genre, but I still liked it.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

Exactly what it says: a dramatization of the 1979 Iranian revolution, or moments of it, at least. You are a photojournalist, home from a year abroad, discovering that "home" is a word that covers a lot of ground. Contested ground.

Necessarily this kind of game serves two aims: the dramatic and the didactic. 1979 Revolution wants to immerse you in Iran-circa-1979; it wants to show you (the player, most likely a Westerner, in 2016) what that world was like; it wants to make you care. And it does these things successfully, but not smoothly. I felt like the game was always either in didactic mode or dramatic mode.

Didactic is a bit distanced. Here is Reza, the local boy, walking around examining the elements of his own life for your benefit. Yes, he's been out of town, and no, he doesn't act surprised at his home-town food or friends. The background material is wrapped up in an extra-diegetic journal that fills in as you go. But by the same token, it's a part of the game which is addressed to you, not to the protagonist.

As for the dramatic scenes -- the designers are clearly taking cues from the Telltale line. You have a lot of X/Y/Z dialogue choices, a lot of "Hossein will remember that!" tags, and frequent quick-timey interaction moments. These were, again, somewhat clunky. I failed quite a few scenes because I just didn't understand how to click-to-proceed. Eventually I figured out the game's UI conventions, and I got on well after that.

However, the question is not "how well-implemented is this story?"; it's "am I glad that someone told me this story?" And the answer is... well, it's not a happy story. I mean, it's not fun. You are involved in a chapter of Iran's history where people were arrested, tortured, or shot in the street by an autocratic regime. The game is about those people. It drops you into a torture prison, faces you with the (real-history) torturer-in-chief Asadollah Lajevardi.

It also drops you into Reza's life, with his ordinary-if-upper-class family, his friends, his city. You see his father's real-life home movies and his family photos. (Contributed by pointedly anonymous benefactors of the game project.) These are most honest and moving moments, I think -- more so than the cinematic scenes of being shot at or arrested.

It is an unashamedly biased presentation. From the inside, the revolution is idealistic, a fervent time of truth spoken to power. The protestors have been failed by the Shah's regime; they will be failed by the Islamic republic that is to come; they are betrayed by their own internal disagreements and the sins they will commit in the course of their revolution. The game nods to all of that. But it still casts them as heroes. It's hard to disagree.

So yes, I am glad that I have experienced this. I was in grade school in 1979; I remember hearing about the revolution as a distant, paper-thin shadow of an event. I remember that we didn't like Khomeini. I don't even remember how I knew that; it was schoolboy jokes, third-hand cultural miasma. This game is a window into the era for people like me -- a narrow slantwise window, but more than I had.

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Quern: Undying Thoughts: design ruminations

When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?

Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)

And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)

Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.

(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)

Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.


Now I can talk about the differences -- which are smaller, but more interesting to discuss.

Quern has lots of visual detail, but it's not so good on focus. You will frequently find a workbench full of tools, and it's not at all clear which are the important tools and which are just scenery. So many hammers! There are things in the game that I want to smash! Sorry, no hammer for you. Even more annoying, there's a loose ladder in the very first room, but you can't take it or use it to climb anywhere.

In contrast, Obduction keeps the really tempting tools out of reach. It also avoids puzzles that make you think "if I only had a hammer..." (Or garden shears, or a couple of sticks, or...)

Quern is generally in tune with Cyan's house style, but it misses a few of the details. Obduction is good about showing the difference between a two-way switch (which can be flipped back and forth) and a one-way switch (which locks after you flip it). The control might retract to show that it's locked, or you might see a pin drop into place. Quern tends not to do this. Thus, one-way switches feel arbitrary. It's particularly annoying when the effect of the switch is not directly visible; then then you have no way to experiment to figure it out.

(You might say that every control should be flippable back and forth. That's how real life works! But when designing a game, you often want to simplify. Once the power has been turned on, it stays on. Once door X is open, it stays open for the rest of the game. And so on. This is a useful trick for keeping the player out of stuck-unwinnable states.)

Obduction was built primarily around one puzzle mechanism: the seed machines. There are other sorts of puzzles (starting engines, finding passwords, using the mine cart) -- but they're very much the Lord High Everything Else. I don't mean it's 99% seed puzzles, but you wind up thinking of the puzzles as "seed machines" and "the other stuff".

Quern, in contrast, has lots of puzzle types. It's downright exuberant with them. Slider puzzles, machine puzzles, symbol-finding puzzles, symbol-matching puzzles, letter puzzles, sound puzzles, light puzzles, weight puzzles, alchemy puzzles (yay!). That's not remotely a complete list.

Moreover, Quern mostly adheres to the puzzle design rule of "do everything twice". (Once as a directly-presented puzzle; once in a new context where you have to remember that thing you did earlier in the game.) Obduction does this too, but it has fewer puzzle concepts! With Quern, by the time you're halfway through, you are balancing a mental map of everything you've encountered. Any of the mechanisms or locations could wind up being relevant again. Not to mention a mental map of the island and where every unsolved puzzle is -- because any of them might be next.

The down side of this is that, with so many puzzle types, a few are worn-out hats. There's a Mastermind game. There's a block-slider. (But not the worst block-slider, which you have to pay me $50 to solve these days. Quern's slider was okay.)

There are, as I said, a couple of audio puzzles. I did not see any accomodation for hearing-impaired players. This is not a fatal strike (not like that flippin' Donkey slider!) but you want to ask if an accomodation is possible. In some games, the puzzle is "notice the audio component at all" -- any kind of subtitling would spoil it. The audio puzzles in Quern are different; they're about noticing qualities of sounds. A non-audio indicator could work. But you'd have to think about it.

There is one terrible puzzle. I know puzzles are subjective, but at one point I said "I hit a bad puzzle" and my friend said "There is one very bad puzzle" and we were talking about the same puzzle.

I don't want to rag on that one puzzle, because the developers have said in a Steam forum thread that they're considering ways to fix it. You can read the thread for the details.

However, it's a great example of the perils of puzzle design. So I'm going to dig into it a little. I will try to avoid spoilery specifics, but I will describe some elements of the puzzle. Starting... NOW.

The puzzle has two stages. ("Do everything twice", remember?) The first stage is a straightforward information-matching puzzle. You need to look at two clues, figure out what each diagram means, combine the information, and apply the result to a device. When you push the right buttons -- you're not finished. The device ostentiatiously turns upside down.

It's clear that you have to use the device again, but with a new button sequence. You now have to interpret the clues "upside down". There are a couple of things that could mean, so you try one of them. Then you try a different one. Then you try applying those ideas to the other clue. Then you start trying combinations of interpretations...

(If you look back at the forum thread, one player mentions trying sixteen possible input sequences, based on different combinations of what "upside down" could mean. I went down the same road.)

None of this works, so eventually you give up and go to the forum. Lo, there is a thread explaining what you missed: you have to go to the other side of the island and look in a place marked by a familiar symbol. There you will find a third clue, which supersedes one of the originals. Now the second stage is solvable.

So. What is the design problem here? Missing the third clue, right? I saw players talking about ways to make the marker symbol more visible, or making it easier to extract the third clue.

But I would say that the problem is not missing the third clue; it's believing that the first two clues are sufficient! The ambiguity of the upside-down hint, while a fine puzzle element in itself, misleads players into thinking that that's the entire second stage of the puzzle -- figuring out the right interpretation of "upside down". As I noted, there are several possibilities. Each time one fails, you look harder for another. Nothing points you at the idea that you've got the wrong clues in hand.

This is, of course, why game design is hard. You have to imagine the state of not knowing -- and then keep imagining every stage of figuring out. Including the dead ends.

Also, once someone has run out of patience and looked at hints, they're not likely to appreciate your clever design any more. I went and got the third clue (nice puzzle in itself!); but then I didn't have to energy to work it back through the puzzle logic. I just looked at a walkthrough.

(PS: Video walkthroughs are still terrible, but I admit that this game would have required too many diagrams for a text file.) (PPS: Wait, someone made a text walkthrough with diagrams! See this thread. Thanks!)


I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I've spent a page and a half talking about the worst puzzle in Quern, because it makes a good case study. Quern is packed with puzzles that are much better than that. I recommend this game! You should play it. The designers should make another game.

This is a good time for adventure games.

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Hadean Lands on sale this week!

You may have noted that Steam has launched its Thanksgiving sale. It's not Black Friday yet; I dunno, maybe it's Purple Wednesday. They don't tell me these things.

Anyhow, Hadean Lands is part of this sale. My first Steam sale! Until Nov 29th, you can buy the game for 35% off. Exciting times indeed.

While you're at it, you might want to nominate your favorite text adventure for the Steam Awards. Interactive fiction winning such an award in the braoder gaming market? Sounds unlikely, doesn't it? I guess we'll find out!

We do not neglect other platforms! I've applied the same 35% discount to Hadean Lands on Itch.IO, the Humble Store, and the iOS App Store.

(Yes, the iOS version has a lower base price. That's just the way things are right now.) (Also note: due to the way Apple prices bundles, the "Zarf's Interactive Fiction" bundle is not available this week.)

...Oh, and since somebody is going to ask: no. The Steam DLC Solo Adventurer Pledge Certificate is not discounted. Discounting the certificate would only make it less valuable. Sheesh.

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Even more very quick takes on recent games

I finished up all the games I bought from Steam's summer sale, so I bought a bunch more in Steam's Halloween sale. Nice how that works out, right?

Note: I am involved in IGF judging again this year. However, I played all of these games before I started doing that, and I bought them all on my own dime (minus the Halloween sale discount).

Hue: A short casual-puzzle game. It's a 2D platformer with a theme of color-shifting; any object that matches the background is invisible and therefore doesn't exist. The puzzles explore this premise adequately -- no enormous surprises but everything is solidly designed. The platforming requires light jumping-reflex skills, nothing hardcore.

As for the story, well, it's in the genre of sentimental art games about children. A lot of background voiceover about Love as the silent protagonist jumps around. We've seen a lot of these, I'm afraid.

Pavilion: Another short casual-puzzle game. The puzzles are decent; they have a playful, exploratory variety of mechanics, but they're not very difficult or complex as puzzles per se. But the real point is the game art and the soundtrack, which are hallucinatory and fantastic. (Warning: designed for game controller; awkward on keyboard. The developer swears that they're working on a mouse UI.)

Apartment 666: Yeah, I dunno. The combination of highly repetitive environments and a cheesy there's-a-murderer "horror" story turned me off quick. I quit out before finishing, and I gather the game wasn't long to begin with.

Abzû: I'm glad that Journey wound up defining a class of games (a form). Sometimes I just want to sit down with a couple of hours of narrative experience that has arc, theme, variation of interaction model, a bit of challenge, and (not tangentially) is really, really pretty.

If you add serious puzzles to that you have a short adventure game. If you add blood and jump scares you get horror. If you add boatloads of text you get some kind of IF. I am sometimes in the mood for each of these, but then sometimes I'm not, so Abzû is a good sort of game to have around.

Subject 13: Another old-school adventure game; this one is third-person. Even has the classic pop-up verb menu.

The early puzzles take excellent advantage of the 3D engine; you have puzzle-boxes to examine from all sides and manipulate. I like those. And then... bam! Slider puzzle. The first two chapters have some simple slider puzzles, which I don't mind, but chapter 3 throws you the classic tedious squares-and-rectangles slider puzzle. It is 2016 (or 2015 when the game was released, same difference). That means you have to pay me $50 to solve the slider puzzle again. This game didn't pay me $50. Discard.

Haven Moon: A Myst-clone. Small and enthusiastic, but I can't say it's an outstanding example of the genre. It's not a bad game either! It has a lot of good ideas and puzzles. But the visuals are a little weak (the world gets samey-samey as you explore); the puzzles are a bit sparse and many of them are underclued.

I suppose this gets into a philosophical game-design debate. Here we have a solo project, an adventure game built by one author. If it were text IF, I'd expect it to be totally solid -- text IF can be built solo, we all recognize that. But for graphical adventures? Modern tools (Unity, in this case) let a small team build a high-quality graphical game. But going it alone is still hard!

So the author gets my respect for doing it at all. But, on the other hand, is this the right tack? I said both the world and the puzzles felt sparse. This implies that the author could have done better -- or made me happier, at least -- by tightening things up, packing the same amount of work into less floorspace.

But then, of course, there is a joy to architecture and open space. I don't want to squash that. (I recall The Guest, a charming example of a right-sized adventure in a claustrophobic hotel room. Must every game look like that? Of course not.)

So I don't have a simple "you should have done this differently!" message. Which is good, because who wants to hear that? I will just gesture at the range of possibilities, which includes tiny, densely-packed puzzleboxes.

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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:

alchemy-game

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 hermeticlands.com 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.


Conclusions:

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 username.github.io. This is a better fit for open-source projects, although the Pages repository is not required to be public.

  • Philome.la: 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 Philome.la 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 iplayif.com 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 ftp.gmd.de 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 iplayif.com 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 Eurogamer.net. (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 (iftechfoundation.org) 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.

Details...

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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