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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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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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Mysterium news roundup

The Mysterium fan convention is going on this weekend in Salt Lake City. I'm not there, but the events have been streamed on Twitch so I've been able to follow along.

The Starry Expanse team gave their annual report. This is a fan group that has been reconstructing Riven in a modern 3D engine. In fact they're on their third engine! They starting out with Plasma (Cyan's homebrew engine, which was used for Uru and Myst 5). Then they moved to Unity; now they're on Unreal Engine 4.

As a result, Starry Expanse has regressed somewhat, at least to the eye. In previous years the team had fully-textured playable demos of a couple of areas, built in Unity. Now, with UE4, they have larger areas, but untextured (except for some metallic-surface effects and ripply water). On the plus side: one of the tram rides is animated and ready to go! Watch the video to see it.

The other great Mysterium tradition is the videochat with Rand Miller. Cyan is of course head-down on finishing Obduction, but Rand took time out to chat with the fans.

These chats are generally not full of exciting news. (Because if you have a big announcement, you blast it to journalists, not little fan conventions.) Nonetheless, there were a few tidbits.

Obduction release countdown: The release date is August 24th! Obduction Kickstarter backers should receive email with details soon. The emails have already started going out, but it will take a few days to send them all. (There are 22000-odd backers and the emails are sent one-by-one from Rand's laptop.)

Obduction team size: Rand described the team as four programmers, six or seven artists, a couple of designers, eight QA people, and a few others doing this and that. He noted that people have multiple roles; Rand himself is doing some sound work as well as overseeing things.

He also noted that Obduction development has had a small, fast-moving, startup-like feel, like the original Myst:

This feels more like it's scrappy; there's not a lot of time and money and resources. [...] I know this doesn't seem fast to you, and probably with a Kickstarter a million bucks seems like a lot to you. But every bit of that money -- and then some, we had to get more -- has gone into this game, trying to squeeze every last little drop out of it.

(Cyan reported last year that they'd had development problems due to a publisher bailing on them at the last minute. So we know that they were seeking funding beyond the original Kickstarter. This statement confirms that they got some.)

Possible next projects after Obduction: They don't have one lined up.

It's hard to contemplate, and we know we should. If we were really a good company [...], we would already have had some guys lining up the next thing in parallel, and designing this, [...], so that our guys could roll into it, but we're just too into [Obduction]. Every bit of resources we have is into Obduction.

They're interested in porting Obduction to more platfoms, of course. They have lots of other project ideas on the back burner, but they'll have to see how Obduction does and what it might lead to. Rand noted that he's particularly interested in VR and multi-player experiences.

Republishing Myst 3 and Myst 4: (At least, I'm pretty sure that's what the question was! I couldn't hear the questioner.) They are getting closer but it's slow.

We just recently have talked more with the companies involved in those, and hopefully are making more progress. Again, this is much more interesting to us than it is to the companies who have those rights, who this means little or nothing to. [...] When one of our guys was on vacation in Europe, in France, he made a visit to certain companies to talk to them about doing certain things with this. So yes, as long as we can get the right people involved, at least theoretically we have them going "Yeah, we don't see any problem with that". But with big companies things bog down.

As we recall, Myst 3 was developed by Presto Studios and Myst 4 by Ubisoft; both were published by Ubisoft while Cyan was concentrating on Uru. Both are currently out of print. It's generally assumed that Ubisoft has the publishing rights and just hasn't bothered to re-release them.

Rand's statement doesn't leave us knowing much more than that. But Ubisoft is headquartered in France, so that's presumably one of the companies in question.

The Myst TV show: No news.

The brief excitement around Hulu's announcement last year has long since burned out. (Hulu announced that they were greenlighting a show on script approval, but that was over a year ago. Apparently they didn't approve the script.)

Rand's comments remain optimistic but noncommittal:

We still have exciting things happening [...] with the same company [...] Things start to get movement, and people start to be brought on board and attached to things. I still refuse to get too excited about it because it's been so long, and I really don't know how it works. But it feels to me that, yeah, progress is being made.

It could be one of those things that, [...] all of a sudden, boom! There's exciting things happening and announcements are being made and fun stuff's gonna be coming out [...] as soon as they get the right people attached and things start to move. There's potential for that.

But maybe not; maybe next year he'll be giving the same optimistic-but-noncommittal answer.

I believe that "with the same company" refers to Legendary Television. Cyan has been working with Legendary since 2014 to develop the Myst show concept.

That's all I noted down. Thanks to Rand Miller for the chat, and to the Mysterium crew for putting the con together.

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Mysterium news roundup

The Mysterium fan convention is going on this weekend in Salt Lake City. I'm not there, but the events have been streamed on Twitch so I've been able to follow along.

The Starry Expanse team gave their annual report. This is a fan group that has been reconstructing Riven in a modern 3D engine. In fact they're on their third engine! They starting out with Plasma (Cyan's homebrew engine, which was used for Uru and Myst 5). Then they moved to Unity; now they're on Unreal Engine 4.

As a result, Starry Expanse has regressed somewhat, at least to the eye. In previous years the team had fully-textured playable demos of a couple of areas, built in Unity. Now, with UE4, they have larger areas, but untextured (except for some metallic-surface effects and ripply water). On the plus side: one of the tram rides is animated and ready to go! Watch the video to see it.

The other great Mysterium tradition is the videochat with Rand Miller. Cyan is of course head-down on finishing Obduction, but Rand took time out to chat with the fans.

These chats are generally not full of exciting news. (Because if you have a big announcement, you blast it to journalists, not little fan conventions.) Nonetheless, there were a few tidbits.

Obduction release countdown: The release date is August 24th! Obduction Kickstarter backers should receive email with details soon. The emails have already started going out, but it will take a few days to send them all. (There are 22000-odd backers and the emails are sent one-by-one from Rand's laptop.)

Obduction team size: Rand described the team as four programmers, six or seven artists, a couple of designers, eight QA people, and a few others doing this and that. He noted that people have multiple roles; Rand himself is doing some sound work as well as overseeing things.

He also noted that Obduction development has had a small, fast-moving, startup-like feel, like the original Myst:

This feels more like it's scrappy; there's not a lot of time and money and resources. [...] I know this doesn't seem fast to you, and probably with a Kickstarter a million bucks seems like a lot to you. But every bit of that money -- and then some, we had to get more -- has gone into this game, trying to squeeze every last little drop out of it.

(Cyan reported last year that they'd had development problems due to a publisher bailing on them at the last minute. So we know that they were seeking funding beyond the original Kickstarter. This statement confirms that they got some.)

Possible next projects after Obduction: They don't have one lined up.

It's hard to contemplate, and we know we should. If we were really a good company [...], we would already have had some guys lining up the next thing in parallel, and designing this, [...], so that our guys could roll into it, but we're just too into [Obduction]. Every bit of resources we have is into Obduction.

They're interested in porting Obduction to more platfoms, of course. They have lots of other project ideas on the back burner, but they'll have to see how Obduction does and what it might lead to. Rand noted that he's particularly interested in VR and multi-player experiences.

Republishing Myst 3 and Myst 4: (At least, I'm pretty sure that's what the question was! I couldn't hear the questioner.) They are getting closer but it's slow.

We just recently have talked more with the companies involved in those, and hopefully are making more progress. Again, this is much more interesting to us than it is to the companies who have those rights, who this means little or nothing to. [...] When one of our guys was on vacation in Europe, in France, he made a visit to certain companies to talk to them about doing certain things with this. So yes, as long as we can get the right people involved, at least theoretically we have them going "Yeah, we don't see any problem with that". But with big companies things bog down.

As we recall, Myst 3 was developed by Presto Studios and Myst 4 by Ubisoft; both were published by Ubisoft while Cyan was concentrating on Uru. Both are currently out of print. It's generally assumed that Ubisoft has the publishing rights and just hasn't bothered to re-release them.

Rand's statement doesn't leave us knowing much more than that. But Ubisoft is headquartered in France, so that's presumably one of the companies in question.

The Myst TV show: No news.

The brief excitement around Hulu's announcement last year has long since burned out. (Hulu announced that they were greenlighting a show on script approval, but that was over a year ago. Apparently they didn't approve the script.)

Rand's comments remain optimistic but noncommittal:

We still have exciting things happening [...] with the same company [...] Things start to get movement, and people start to be brought on board and attached to things. I still refuse to get too excited about it because it's been so long, and I really don't know how it works. But it feels to me that, yeah, progress is being made.

It could be one of those things that, [...] all of a sudden, boom! There's exciting things happening and announcements are being made and fun stuff's gonna be coming out [...] as soon as they get the right people attached and things start to move. There's potential for that.

But maybe not; maybe next year he'll be giving the same optimistic-but-noncommittal answer.

I believe that "with the same company" refers to Legendary Television. Cyan has been working with Legendary since 2014 to develop the Myst show concept.

That's all I noted down. Thanks to Rand Miller for the chat, and to the Mysterium crew for putting the con together.

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Notes from GDC

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

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

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

Excellent talks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few quick non-GDC notes:

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

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

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

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Mysterium news roundup, 2015

Been a while since I cranked this machinery, hasn't it?

Mysterium was in Boston this year. It was fun! There isn't a whole lot of news out of Myst fandom, but I can point at a few things.

Obduction development continues. Cyan had a special preview trailer for fans attending the convention. Looked great, albeit very still-in-production. Yes, they want to release a trailer for everybody to watch, once they've got things more polished. ("Later this summer".) The game itself is running "a little late" and doesn't have a ship date yet.

There is no news on the Myst TV show front. (We recall that back in May, Hulu expressed interest pending script approval. Nothing has been announced since.) Rand Miller offered a lot of optimism but no details.

(For a liveblog of the Q&A session with Rand and the Cyan staff, see this Tumblr post.)

Starry Expanse development also continues. (This is the fan-made Riven-in-3D project.) You can watch the team's presentation and demo of Age 233 (Gehn's office). Or look at screenshots.

The convention built a "room escape" game in one of the hotel rooms! This was a fantastic construction, with journals and audio recordings and motion detectors and Arduino-controlled consoles. Cyan even contributed some audio of Atrus (Rand Miller) speaking. And... the game didn't really work. This is a darn shame. There were hardware bugs, software bugs, puzzle solvability issues. Several teams attempted the game; none solved it.

For a detailed post-mortem, see this Tumblr post. (With video tour!)

Disclosure: I was invited to help out with the puzzle design. Further disclosure: I got too busy and flaked out. Sorry! I contributed some ideas to the original brainstorming session, and I commented a bit during the design process, but that's all. Major props to Tonbury for the puzzle design, Taniith for heroic construction work, and Riv for a light-up linking book (the way out, which nobody reached). I wish we had had four more weeks for playtesting and polish.

And finally... well, not finally but pretty late on Saturday... I was on a panel about narrative games. I was joined by Ichiro Lambe (Dejobaan Games) and Dean O'Donnell (professor at WPI). This was a hoot, although somewhat unstructured; we bounced around topics and generally attempted to sound smart. Do we have video? Er... not yet. (Everything went out over Twitch but it hasn't all been wrapped up for Youtube yet.) I will update this post when that's available.

That is the news. (Or lack thereof.) Next year, hopefully, much more concrete information on Obduction and the TV show.

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Mysterium news roundup

I didn't go to Mysterium this year. I wanted to; it was held in Spokane, so the attendees got to visit Cyan's offices and chat with Rand and Robyn Miller and basically geek out all over the place. It didn't fit in with my summer plans, though. Fortunately the fans took copious notes. Here's the current Myst news:

Obduction development continues. Unreal 4 engine.

Cyan has posted a gigantic folder of Myst Online concept art (dropbox link). This is early material -- I'm guessing 2000 to 2002. A little bit of this wound up in Myst Online, and a bit more has leaked out online, but most of it is new to me.

A group of fans have gotten permission to work on Myst Online content -- updating areas from Myst 5, building areas from the concept art above, and importing original fan Ages. These may wind up in the official Myst Online server, although the final decision is up to Cyan, obviously. They say they're aiming to have something playable by the end of this year. I hope that works out. (More discussion in character.)

The Starry Expanse project (a fan remake of Riven) has made excellent progress building Riven's Jungle Island. Here's a video tour (youtube) of what they've done. You'll see that some textures are missing, and the water effects need work, but what they've got is fantastic.

Unwritten, the Myst-setting RPG, has been somewhat delayed but is making progress. They've shipped their Kickstarter tchotchkes; I have a nice D'ni-style notebook and some wooden tokens. (This is a Fate-based RPG, so there are Fate tokens.) The game manuscript itself has gone through a couple of rewrites, with input from Leonard Balsera. Last I heard they were aiming at shipping this month, but I get the impression it'll be another couple more.

There was a pancake printer. I don't know either.

Further notes from the convention:

Mysterium is back in Boston next year, and I hope to be there.

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Zarfplan: October -- goodbye sunlight

Not goodbye forever, or even for the rest of the year. But it's Halloween; it's been damp and grey all day; and I just returned from the annual Somerville Anti-Morris Dance. Feels like putting the sun to bed.

I spent the first half of October dealing with the remaining major puzzles -- the ones outside the starship. Naturally, this was more work than I expected (it's always more work than you expected) but I got it hammered out.

Then, on to the map! This was more than just adding rooms -- it's about positioning objects and clues.

I've long had a list of important puzzle elements, and a sense of where they appear in the storyline: these in chapter one, those in chapter two, that one behind locked door X, and so on. But most of them weren't actually present on the map. So for the past week, I've been going through the storyline, chapter by chapter, and marking down locations for absolutely everything.

This task is still in progress. I've gotten the first two chapters nailed down. "Out of how many chapters?" you ask! Well, that depends how you count. There are four major plot stages, which I've been calling "chapters", but I suspect that they won't appear as such in the final game. The player will see significant breaks, but perhaps not the same division points. Maybe six of them?

That's not a useful statistic. Here's a better one: 60% of the magic words, 40% of the recipes, and 95% of the physical objects are now located on the map. (Yes, all that stuff appears in the first two chapters. These include many common items which will be reused throughout the game. The later chapters introduce rarer and more powerful items -- thus, by definition, fewer of them. Hadean Lands is front-loaded with toys; that's just how it came out.)

The map grew ten new rooms in the process. This was expected; I've always had a vague scribble off to the north marked "crew quarters, more stuff". That's now filled in. Bonus: I've sketched out the first two chapters in my PlotEx constraint tool, so I know the game is solvable that far. I haven't put a key behind the door it unlocks, or anything dumb like that.

The down side: I haven't implemented these new rooms, or the bits of paper with all those magic words and alchemical recipes. They're still just notes in my files. And of course I have two chapters (40% of the words, 60% of the recipes) still to go. So November's work is laid out for me.

As you know, tomorrow is the third anniversary of this Kickstarter's launch -- and the third anniversary of its funding goal, since your generosity cleared that on day one. I never anticipated this long a road, and it's not done yet. But we're moving along. I appreciate your patience.

If I may indulge in hindsight: a year ago, my update post was all about the goal-shortcut system... which was partially done, but included no puzzle goals yet. And I was getting ready to start implementing the map.

Two years ago I was staring at a huge stack of disparate puzzle and story ideas with a panicked expression on my face.

So, while I'm not thrilled with my progress rate, I don't think I need to be ashamed either.

Enough of my self-regard. More IF news:

I will be attending the Practice conference at NYU in mid-November. I'm not speaking, but Emily Short is. Should be a fun weekend.

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction now has a twitter account. If you're in the Boston area (or are generally interested) follow away.

Finally, a bare-faced plea! As you may be aware, Cyan Worlds has launched a Kickstarter: Obduction. This will be their first major new game since Myst 5 in 2005. They have set a high goal -- over a megabuck -- and they are currently about 60% of the way there.

As you know, I'm a big Myst fan. I want to see Obduction get made. It's not Myst-related, and that's good: this is Cyan's chance to break away from the long decline of Myst Online, and start something fresh.

The Kickstarter is cranking pretty well, for the mid-project trough period. I'd still like to see it closer to the goal before the frenetic final weekend hits. So: please consider a donation. If you glanced at the Kickstarter when it launched, it's worth reading the updates; Cyan has added a measured dose of detail about the game's background and storyline. Also: Oculus Rift stretch goal.

And now I must digest Halloween candy and get over the sugar rush. Next month.

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That Cyan Kickstarter: Obduction

The rumor-noise was for the beginning of November, but I guess they were ready sooner than that. Greet Obduction:

All-new sci-fi graphical adventure game. They're headlining Rand Miller as head pooh-bah, and Stephan Martinière and Eric A. Anderson (Myst Online, The Witness) as lead artists.

Obduction begins with... well… an abduction - your abduction. On a crystal clear, moon-lit night, a curious, organic artifact drops from the sky and inexplicably whisks you away across the universes to who-knows-where (or when, or why). -- from the Kickstarter page

And there's an abandoned white house with a picket fence in the middle of a fantastical landscape. Adventure-game history acknowledges the nod.

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