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12.28.86

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has announced a new book project with the working title 12.28.86: One Day. For the next two years, he’ll research stories about what happened all around the United States on that date, whose numbers he drew from a hat.

Gene is currently collecting stories and research leads on the project’s Facebook page; one can also email stories privately to an address found in that page’s description. He states openness to anything from headline-making news down to personal narratives.

The date held immediate resonance with me, and so last night I wrote up a little remembrance. It crosses over with games (and the roots of my lasting interest in games) enough that I feel like sharing it here as well.


On this day in 1986 I was 12 years old, and just days before this I had received a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. It was the kind with the ridiculous toy robot in the box, included because in 1986 videogames were seen by American retailers to be a fad that had come and gone years before. Thus, Nintendo sold it as a robotic toy that played TV games somehow, in order to entice wary toy stores to stock the systems. Nobody except videogame historians remembers that weird, clunky robot now, because kids got bored of it after 20 minutes and stuck to playing this crazy new Super Mario Bros. game instead.

Many parents referred to an instance of the system as “a Nintendo” but my father honestly thought it was called “an Intendo”. He also thought that one insulted an awkwardly bookish person by calling them “an erd”, or perhaps “urd”; I don’t know how he imagined this was spelled. “Jason, don’t be an uuuuuhd,” he’d say in his rich Downeast Maine accent, on days when I’d play too much Intendo. Did you know that the word for an arbiter of certain sporting events was originally “numpire”, but the n got lopped off due to misattaching it to the indefinite article, an example of what linguists call “juncture loss”? It wasn’t just my dad is what I’m saying.

On the evening of December 28 my oldest brother Ricky showed up at the Florida beachside condominium my family wintered in — quite unexpectedly, because the last I knew he was supposed to be in stationed at a U.S. Army base in Panama. He was stinking drunk, some days into a bender, though I didn’t realize that at the time. He wasn’t interested in playing any of my cool new videogames with me. When my parents came home later that night it got sorted out that he’d been discharged, honorably but not voluntarily, following events I remain not entirely certain about.

Several days after his return, he’d crack his skull open on some underwater rocks while trying to impress my friend’s mom with a standing swan dive into the shallow beach surf like a jackass. This would be the beginning of a very difficult time for my family. The next Christmas I would receive The Legend of Zelda for my Nintendo, and I would beat up cartoon wizards on TV while Ricky, who now had to live with us, punched holes into walls and windows upstairs, frustrated into fury at the handicaps his brain injury had saddled him with, though he still had the youth and physique of an Army officer in his prime. It would be many years before some combination of therapy, medicine and the mellowing of middle age allowed him to live independently again.

Earlier this year — 2013, that is — we buried our dad, who was a Korean War veteran, and so earned himself a spot in a veterans’ cemetery and had a color guard show up for the funeral and all of that. Ricky and I spent some time meandering the new cemetery in Augusta, Maine, actually quite beautiful with rolling green paths among the stones and memorials. Pondering these, he predicted that there will never be a memorial for soldiers like him, broken during the Cold War.


I will note two simplifications I made for the sake of a smoother telling.

First, I know damn well that R.O.B. and Super Mario Bros. shipped in separate retail SKUs. R.O.B. came as part of the “Deluxe System”, packaged with the memorable Duck Hunt and the sleepy Gyromite, one of only two games Nintendo would produce for use with the robot. I didn’t mind very much, because by this time I felt I already had my fill of Super Mario through my membership that past summer in an ad-hoc group of kids who would gather daily at a drugstore in Ellsworth, Maine to play it together. But that is a story for another time.

Secondly, I don’t actually know what night Ricky came home. It was sometime between Christmas day and the day my friend (Noah? Joel? something like that) flew back home with his mom, my brother’s unwitting siren, so December 28th seems as likely as any.

If you’d like to hear about much more recent (and less tragic) adventures involving Ricky and videogames, there is the Mass Effect episode of Play of the Light.

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All-Star XYZZY Reviews, 2012 edition

For two years running, Sam Kabo Ashwell has done a heroic job organizing per-category reviews of the previous year’s XYZZY Award-nominated works of interactive fiction, written by authors of prior award-winning games. This year it took the form of a blog, with one writer’s take on a single award category’s nominees rolling out every day over the course of several weeks. Sam posted the final summary on Monday, linking to all the past posts by reviewer and category.

I managed to write four reviews, all covering the 2012 nominees for Best Implementation. I found an interesting challenge in not reviewing the games as whole works, as I normally would, but instead examining them in light of their epitomizing — according to the greater IF community — how a well-implemented text game ought to play. In at least one case this directive let me to write a rather crabby review of a game that I actually quite enjoyed playing, as I found myself rather disagreeing with the community about that particular game’s strongest aspects. I’ll leave it to you to read more about that, if you wish.

I thought the project worked quite splendidly, both as a reviewer and especially as a reader and player, and I look forward to reading more next year. But well before then, I look forward to returning to read many of these reviews, whose mere presence has moved me to queue up and belatedly play a bunch of these 2012 games first. I very much expect I’m not alone here, and that thought does please me.

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Interview about IF in Giant Bomb

Patrick Klepek of the gaming-news site Giant Bomb interviewed me last month about modern interactive fiction in general and The Warbler’s Nest in particular; the resulting feature story is now online. The article ends with an exhortation to play through PR-IF’s curated starter-games list, which is nice to see as well.

While I do wince a little at yet another Adventure games are not dead after all! headline, I can’t help but think to myself: Well, it beats the alternative. And when it sits atop thoughtful articles whose comments sections quickly fill with self-styled gamers enthusiastically recommending IF works at one another, that gives me even less reason to complain.

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No Show videos online

Speaking of the 2012 No Show Conference, all twelve of its talks and presentations are now online for public enjoyment and enrichment. Visit its presentation page with any Flash-capable browser, and click a talk’s Continue reading button to make its video player pop up.

I attended every talk that weekend in person, and found them all rewarding. Going by the metric of new things I learned, my favorite talks include Mitchell Smallman on how economic classes affect gameplay access and Andrea Shubert on practical card game design. But I recommend the whole lot of them; this was a really well curated lineup.

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Mammals needed

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


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

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


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

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

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Animated Screenshots / If We Don't, Remember Me

I find it tempting to write that Leon Arnott’s Animated Screenshots is the If We Don’t, Remember Me of video games, but I’m not sure if that’s exactly true.

Somehow Gus Mantel’s IWDRM, through its slight and carefully controlled animation of film stills, creates long, silent, haunting moments that feel like an extension of the movies they’re from, without being direct excerpts. Arnott’s work, as far as I can tell, comprises literal moments from the games they quote, and as a result feel less like subtle new interpretations of an existing work and more like — well, animated screenshots, really.

Time in a videogame moves naturally in loops. Sit your character still, and the world does in fact stop moving, the clouds drifting past while the candles flicker their four-frame animations in their sconces — forever, or at least for as long as you care to wait. Play a boss fight passively, and watch as the screen-filling terror reveals itself as a predictable, on-rails process, ultimately powerless.

The two sites do share similarity in their surprising use of the animated GIF as a vehicle for quietly contemplating, and even discovering, works in other media. (Does the animation above make you as curious to play The Extinct Bird as it does me?) Definitely worth a browse, in both cases.

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Matt Weise on Zelda's succumbing to nostalgia

Matt Weise writes provocatively on the arc of Legend of Zelda games since 1998, which he sees as creative triumphs of daring disruption crashing down into a shameful regression to mainstream pablum:

I was at Aonuma’s talk at GDC 2007, which was a double apology. First he apologized for making Wind Waker. Then he apologized for making Twilight Princess, the game that was an apology for Wind Waker. After the Western gaming press responded badly to Wind Waker, he tried to guess what this mysterious audience wanted. He did his best. He threw in a werewolf because he didn’t have any better ideas (yes, he said that). But he still wasn’t personally thrilled with it. The game was still a polished piece of craft, but the spark was gone, the bravery that made Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker such stand out experiments, almost arthouse games.

I haven’t played through any of the console Zelda games since Ocarina. Like many of my friends in the Bostonian game-smartypants circle, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Matt hold forth in person about Majora’s Mask, to the point where I’ve promised him that I’ll make the time for it via WiiWare. Embarrassingly, I still haven’t placed it on my queue, though I seem to have plenty of time to roll glass balls through caves or pretend-wander around New Vegas and whatnot for hours on end. Reading this post of his inspires me to amend this. Watch this space.

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The many loves of Stiffy Makane

Adam Thornton has published StiffyMakane.com, a simple website tracking the checkered past of one of modern IF’s most resolutely recurring characters.

Mr. Makane originated from the turgid imagination of an adolescent Mark Ryan in 1997. It was not a very good game — for starters, it famously lets the title character drop his own genitals on the floor and walk away — but it somehow struck a chord with the burgeoning IF community. Stiffy has since then appeared in several text-adventure sex comedies from multiple authors, culminating this year in both Thornton’s own Classical-era epic Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis (praised by Emily Short as a rival to Graham Nelson’s genre-defining Curses), and Sam Kabo Ashwell’s The Cavity of Time, a choose-your-own-adventure work authored in Undum.

The original games aren’t necessarily worth your time to play through (the added blunt humor of the “MSTified” take on Ryan’s original work does little to improve the whole), but I still appreciate Adam’s little shrine to this truly unlikely serial protagonist.

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An IF name generator, and its resulting "Scurvy"

Here’s an intfiction.org forum thread with folks sharing their favorite bits of output from this web-toy by Juhana Leinonen. The program mashes up the titles of IFComp entries since 1995, creating some surprisingly evocative results; the forum writers had some fun listing and grouping the best results, and speculating what the notional games they suggest might contain.

And at least one team of creators took it a step further than that. Spurred by a poster of this program’s output hanging up in last month’s IF enclave at PAX, Rob Dubbin, Darius Kazemi, and Courtney Stanton — all of whom are professional creators from outside the IF-enthusiast core — made A Scurvy of Wonders. They wrote this hallucinogenic game on the spot for that weekend’s SpeedIF contest, and I happen to know that Darius was so pleased with it that he set its URL as his IM status message for the next couple of weeks.

Even though Juhana’s toy and the goofy-fun Scurvy are less “serious” examples of what one can do with IF, they still serve to remind me how much work has been produced in the medium over the years, and how fertile it’s made the soil for all the work to come. May the community continue to find creative ways to till it!

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Announcing: Inform Extensions Search

I am pleased to announce the Inform Extensions Search site, the product of this past Saturday’s procrastinatory toils. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a simple search engine for Inform 7 language extensions.

I created this tool because I miss not having something like the CPAN Search for Inform extensions, even though “only” 230-ish such extensions currently exist in public. In fact, you can see them all (or all the ones released under a Creative Commons license, at least) on a single page at inform7.com.

Up until now, the best way I knew to look for extensions involved visiting that page and using your browser’s Find command. You can also browse by category, but even then you’re limited to extensions’ titles and summaries, and I found myself wanting to search at a deeper level without manually clicking though everything.

My tool offers a solution via searching extensions’ documentation, as well as their more obvious metadata. In this way, for example, a search for guns brings up David Ratliff’s extension to handle weapons and fighting, and searching for water produces several extensions that variously produce and handle liquids, though none have the word “water” in their descriptions.

So that’s that. I hope that someone finds it useful, and welcome feedback and suggestions.

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Not knowing "no", in Dragon Age and elsewhere

Alex Feinman writes a very insightful analysis on the cultural assumptions and pressures that caused the “Straight Male Gamer” to feel threatened when his male player-character in Dragon Age received come-ons from other men. Even though the game prominently offers the choice to turn these offers down, Alex argues, that player’s culture lacks adequate training — especially for boys — on gracefully rejecting benign-but-unwanted advances.

So now that poor, helpless gamer is stuck in quite a conundrum. He doesn’t want to fuck this man. But he doesn’t know how to say no in this situation. He doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know—he just knows that he feels trapped. He can’t even see the problem. So it must be the fault of the rejected—that’s the pattern he knows.

This pattern is writ large in our society. “You can’t let a woman ask a man to dance! What if he doesn’t want to?” We mostly learned that one already. “You can’t have gays in the military—what if one of them comes on to a Marine?” Gee, I guess then the Marine has to learn how to say no, in a way that doesn’t harm unit cohesion. “You can’t have interracial marriages—it makes me feel icky. What if a black woman asked me out?” Well, maybe you should date her. Or maybe you should say no in a manner that doesn’t upset her. “You can’t let fat people think they’re sexual human beings who deserve to live! What if—”

It’s everywhere.

Bonus reading: via Twitter, Adam Cadre points out a relevant excerpt from the webcomic Bad Machinery.

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Chess Boxing: an actual thing done by humans, repeatedly

Robert Krulwich doesn’t lie, which forces me to conclude that Chess Boxing is an actual thing.

We start in a ring. There are screaming fans. The first round is 4 minutes of chess, followed by 3 minutes of boxing, then chess, then boxing, for 11 rounds. You win by knocking out your opponent or checkmating him, either way.

As Krulwich writes, Chess Boxing has apparently been practiced for close to a decade, in a growing number of venues around the world (after starting in Amsterdam). That I had never heard of it before today reminds me that the world of games will always be far larger — and weirder — than I’ll ever completely grasp, bless it.

(And, given the subject matter behind of our banner artwork, perhaps I ought to declare Chess Boxing the official sport of The Gameshelf…)

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Dan Feyer Facts

Dan Feyer won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this past weekend. Andrew Greene has collected a list of #ChuckNorrisFacts-style jokes about his preternatural grid-filling abilities, penned by those who were humbled by him in person. A sampling:

I once had an idea for a crossword but I decided not to construct it because Dan Feyer had already solved it.

When Will Shortz says “On your marks, get set, GO!”, Dan Feyer gets up and goes, because he’s done.

IBM considered calling its Jeopardy computer “FEYER” but didn’t want to insult Dan Feyer.

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Boston-flavored Kickstarter du jour: Children of Liberty

Boston-based Lantana Games has launched a Kickstarter page for Children of Liberty, a stealth-based platformer they’ve been working on for the last year or so. They seek $5,000 to purchase equipment and software that’ll help them finish the work.

Beyond being a valued and respected member of the Boston-area indie-developer community, Lantana knows that the best way to get me to embed a Kickstarter video on my blog is to prominently feature my own voice in it. So here you go:

Aside from loving to hear myself talk, as a lifelong New Englander I also have to love the game’s setting and theme, where the stealthy protagonists are child agents of the Patriots on the eve of the American revolutionary war. Really looking forward to seeing the final product.

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Eitan Glinert on Slam Bolt Scrappers

As a happy little followup to my outsider’s view on watching Slam Bolt Scrappers develop, today on Penny Arcade Eitan tells the same story from his own perspective. So if you liked my article, you should go read that one too.

(Thanks to Amy for the link!)

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The World was Without Form

Jason Dyer explores Will Crowther’s Adventure — the truly original proto-game, that is, before Don Woods got his hands on its source code and turned it into the work that defined computer-based gameplay for many years. I was under the impression that this ur-version was lost to time, but it looks like Dennis Jerz dug it up a few years ago.

Jason’s description of the rough-hewn game is oddly haunting, the map of a dim dream-world that doesn’t quite exist yet.

However, one gets the strong sense this was an abandoned work in progress. The bottom level (with Bedquilt and the Swiss Cheese Room) has exits that don’t work, and one that crashes the game. The area even has a sign that says: ‘CAVE UNDER CONSTRUCTION BEYOND THIS POINT. PROCEED AT OWN RISK.’ I first took this sign as an signal of danger in the in-game universe, but instead it appears to be Crowther’s marker that the code is unfinished past that point.

There’s a long featureless hall to the west leading to nothing.

You too can learn the shocking truth of what the very first GETtable LAMP might actually have been shaped like!

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Maga's illustrated IF list

GalateaLove these blurbs by Sam Kabo Ashwell of modern IF works he recommends, as much for their icon-sized spot illustrations as their smart and succinct text. (He also wrote blurbs and drawings for a large collection of SpeedIF games).

It’s nice to see someone else mark Emily Short’s Savoir Faire so highly. That game is one of my very favorite 21st century (or 18th century, depending on how you look at it) IF works, and one that I think often does get overlooked on best-of lists. Yes, it is very puzzley, but so deliciously so…

(Thanks to Doug for the pointer!)

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Jeff Grubb on Spelljammer's origins

Dungeons and Dragons design veteran Jeff Grub recalls the origins of Spelljammer, an early-1990s D&D supplement that allowed players to launch their faux-medieval fantasy campaigns into outer space.

Here is the image I pitched. A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did. All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

The idea using a single image as a design cornerstone for a game (or a role-playing game’s setting) resonates with me. A single, powerful seed-image also lay at the core of The Warbler’s Nest, and was instrumental in getting me to actually complete and ship the game. I really just wanted make it real and share it as an experience; the rest of the game was almost just a delivery system for that one moment. (Which helps to explain why the whole thing’s so short…)

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Chronogamer on Space Invaders

My pal Joe points us at this entry in Chronogamer, regarding the 1980 Atari VCS port of Space Invaders. It caught Joe’s eye because of its explanation in the comments (by “supercat”) of the game’s “double-shot” exploit — a very early example of an undocumented game-console cheat, and a possible side-effect of Space Invaders’ pioneering two-player co-op mode.

This post also serves as my discovery of Chronogamer. This weblog documents the quest of atariage.com user “Mezrabad” to play every single home console game commercially released in the United States, in chronological order, starting in 1972 with the Odyssey. The blog appears to have entered hiatus in 2010, but only after five years of writing and eight years’ worth of retrospective, so that’s quite a lot of cartridge-cobbled ground covered.

Chronogamer’s writing style can get rather breezy at times, but if that helps the author keep pushing through the games, I approve. I’m very happy someone is doing this, really, since it reminds me of the original concept behind Jmac’s Arcade, before that ended up sailing off its own thematic direction. It’s not impossible that I’ll return to Arcade with a more general goal of historical documentation, rather than personal memoirs (a much shallower well). But if some other halfway decent writer wanted to pick up that flag for coin-operated arcade games in the meantime, I’d applaud it.

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IF to welcome our new robot masters?

A cogent response by Stephen Granade to the question of whether the victory of the Jeopardy!-dominating computer suggests that modern interactive fiction should move to adopt more heavy-duty natural-language processing in its player interface.

Even if you had a perfect parser that could understand everything you typed, the game has to know what to do with it. Parsing is no good if you don’t do something with the results. Watson’s processing power let it parse text input and, based on that and its knowledge of how Jeopardy! answers are structured, make inferences about what related question fit the input. How much power would a game need to respond appropriately to sentences like ‘What have I been doing?’ or ‘Measure out my life in coffee spoons’?

Take the case of an IF parser that accepted adverbs. Current IF parsers accept commands that are of the form VERB THE ADJECTIVE NOUN, occasionally with an added preposition and second noun: ‘PUT THE BOX ON THE TABLE’, ‘OPEN THE RED DOOR’, and similar. Now add in adverbs, so that you can ‘OPEN THE RED DOOR SLOWLY’ or ‘PUT THE COFFEE CUP DOWN QUICKLY’. Now the game must decide the difference between putting something down quickly or slowly. What does it mean in game terms to TURN THE KNOB ANGRILY? You’ve added more nuance to a player’s interaction with the game world, and the IF author has to handle that nuance. It’s more work for the IF author; does it add enough to the game to be worth that work?

And in case you missed it last week, you should read Ken Jennings' entertaining and insightful observations on being one of the soft and fleshy humans that Watson coldly obliterated on national TV, a mere demonstration of our new computer overlords' powers.

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