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Episode #8 - Modern Interactive Fiction

Please enjoy Episode 8 of The Gameshelf’s video series. It’s about modern interactive fiction.

Interactive Fiction (a.k.a. text adventures), a curious cross-medium blending videogames and literature, defined computer entertainment at the start of the PC era. While it’s been decades its commercial heyday, the web has allowed passionate fans and creators to revive the medium through a resurgence of groundbreaking new work.

However, few gamers — even fans of more mainstream adventure games — know that this movement even exists.

In this ten-minute video, Jason McIntosh demonstrates some examples of modern interactive fiction, ponders the challenges that the medium faces in today’s digital-game landscape, and offers some starting points for players first discovering this unique kind of game.

Download it as a high-quality Quicktime file.

Additional credits, links and notes below:


Links


Full Credits

Producer / Writer / Editor / Host

Jason McIntosh

Voice Talent

Lindsay Gonzales, Greg Reimann

Camera

Lee Stewart, Julia Tenney

“Action Castle” Players

Ruth Alfasso, Denis Moskowitz, Gavin Schnitzler, Karl von Laudermann

Music

The Gameshelf theme music is by Joe Johnston.

This episode’s music also included:

Special Thanks

Besides sitting for an interview, Nick Montfort also let Lee and I film various clips in his curio-laden office. The Apple IIc, the retail-box IF antiques, and the various other relics of bygone electronic games are all part of his own collection.

Andrew Plotkin helped sanity-check this video’s content, through its several drafts. (And also sat for an interview.)

Jason Scott didn’t have any direct involvement in the production of this video, but we did have some nice conversations about video production between my last major effort and this one. Mainly, I wish to mention that his own breathtakingly ambitious, feature-length (and then some) documentary about interactive fiction’s history, Get Lamp, is going on sale very soon, and it’s beautiful. You should go buy a copy.

Somerville Community Access TV lent Lee and I the equipment we used to record Nick’s interview and office footage.

Other Notes

Yes, I did in fact write an IF “game” that became the backdrop for my host segments. If you’re very good I might make a short followup video about it, and about Inform 7 (the language I used) in general.


In the brief shot of the two of us talking, Nick holds a copy of this book. View its cover at full-size to properly appreciate the majesty. That clip’s original audio (not present in this version) was part of a comedic segue between Andy’s interview and Nick’s, so he pulled this volume off his shelves to use as a wackiness-increasing prop. The entire gag ended up in the post-production trash heap after I decided to go with the shorter format. Luckily, the clip is too dark to make the book very visible, so I used a little of it as a lead-in anyway. Call it an easter egg.


My inspiration for cutting the video’s length from 30 minutes to only ten came from my discovery of Put This On, an excellent, funny, and geek-friendly new video series about men’s clothing and fashion by Jesse Thorn and Adam Lisagor. When I pulled up the first episode, I unconsciously looked at the countdown timer in the corner, saw 10:00, and thought, Well, I’m skeptical about a show about clothes. But it does look kind of interesting, and what the hell, I have ten minutes to spare.

And then a light went on: I’ve been asking too much. It made sense to shoot for 30 minutes when I thought of The Gameshelf as a TV show that I also happened to publish on the web. But, I realized, that’s view proved both outdated and myopic. If I will only agree to sit still in ten-minute chunks, then why would I create videos demanding more time than that?

I came to this decision after starting production months ago with a half-hour script, so more time and effort ended up on the cutting room floor than I’d like. That said, I find this abbreviated format far superior for the web-based publication that The Gameshelf has evolved into. Expect most future video work from me to stay YouTube-sized.

I hope you enjoy both this new format and the video itself. Feel free to let me know what you think!

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Episode #7 - Diplomacy

I am pleased to present the seventh episode of The Gameshelf, a product of over four months' work from both me and my totally stellar cast and crew. In this episode, we focus on a single board game: Diplomacy, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its original publication this year. In usual Gameshelf fashion, we show you a game in play. But this is a very unusual game, so we took an unusual approach to filming it. I hope you enjoy it.

Watch it through the embedded player above, or download it as a high-quality Quicktime video file.

This was the most ambitious show we've ever made, and I am as proud of it as I am looking forward to returning to humbler (read: easier to edit) show styles.


Some show notes and links:


  • A Chicago Magazine profile of Diplomacy's designer, Allan B. Calhamer, from earlier this year. Describes the life of a trailblazing game designer in a time when the world wasn't quite ready to support his chosen passion, which is why he spent most of his life as a mail carrier. (He's now retired.)

  • The two websites I mention towards the end of the show:

    • The Diplomatic Pouch, a Diplomacy fansite with deep roots, collecting lots of resources related to the game. It includes an archive of a "Dip" fanzine nearly as old as the web, and links to print zine archives decades older.

    • WebDiplomacy.Net, an online implementation of Diplomacy with some pretty sweet graphics, and the ability to browse games in progress. This website was brought to my attention from Matt Sakai (Italy), who hadn't played Diplomacy at all before the weekend of filming, and then went on to play several games online.

  • Wizards of the Coast's Diplomacy page. As mentioned on the show, WotC is the game's current publisher, and kindly provided the copy we used to play.

  • This is the weddingest episode of The Gameshelf ever:

    • Kevin Jackson-Mead, who played Russia, flew off to real-life Russia the following weekend to get hitched. (He wrote a blog entry about his experiences there as a visiting gamer.)

    • Dave Heiman (Turkey) and Diana Mirabello (France) got married to each other earlier this month.

    I'm fairly certain that, in both cases, the weddings were planned well in advance of our game shoot. But who knows how existing passions may have been further enflamed by the desperate clash of anthropomorphized nation-states?

  • We set up a "confessional camera" (a MacBook with a webcam app loaded) in a closet. All the players (and some of the crew) made healthy use of it, but I ended up not using any of the footage so collected in the final show. I plan on releasing a "bonus episode" that will simply concatenate all the confessions into a single document of world domination.

  • This was the first episode of The Gameshelf filmed without any use of the Somerville Community Access TV studio, though I still made use of their camcorders, with gratitude. All filming took place in my home, including the greenscreen bits.

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Episode #6 - Economic games


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In this episode, we talk about the influential Sid Sackson board game Acquire and the classic computer game M.U.L.E.. Scott Nicholson of Board Games with Scott also pays us a visit to talk about the more recent board game Indonesia.

  • Some web links mentioned in the show...
    • GetHostile, a free online clone of Acquire.
    • SpaceHoRSE, a shareware modernization of MULE.
    • Smithore.com, a MULE fansite highlighting records of over 1,000 games that two friends have played against each other since 2002 (and only because that's when they started keeping track, having played since 1985).
    • The full MULE manual, reproduced online by a fan.
    • The emulator I used to run MULE was Atari800MacX, for Mac OS X. Emulators for Atari systems are many, and likely available for whatever flavor of computer you're using to read this.
    • A gallery of Julia Tenney's Carcassonne cookies, both on display and in play.
    • Chinook, the Checkers-playing computer program that is quite literally unbeatable (and which you can futilely test your checkers mettle against online).
    • Rules for Doug Orleans' "Pylon", which took top prize in the summer 2007 Icehouse Game Design Competition.
    • Scott Nicholson's video podcast, "Board Games with Scott".
    • And, of course, The Gameshelf's own website: gameshelf.jmac.org.
  • This episode arrives a good six months after I originally planned it to air. Long story short: my day job blew up, and work on the show hit the backburner until I was back on solid ground. We filmed the Acquire game in March, shot the host segments in September, and I'm finishing the editing on Halloween. I'd like to do one more before January, so look for it to appear next summer I guess.
  • We shot and then discarded a version of the host and monologue segments in April, actually. I originally wanted to green-screen the entire production, featuring Joe and I out on the Irata plains, with an 8-bit landscape and MULEs running around in the background. This turned out to be aiming way too high. I'm pleased with our do-over.
  • In our quest to continue ripping off the fantastic Food Network show "Good Eats", this episode introduces the use of textual trivia used as bumpers between segments. They even rotate slowly, the same way that Good Eats' bumper-text does. Ha ha.
  • There was some discussion among the cast and crew about how to refer to the designer of MULE. The published editions of the game are credited to Dan Bunten, but that was several years before she became a woman named Dani. We decided to go with the latter name, though in retrospect those who don't know the backstory probably think I'm saying "Danny" and perhaps being oddly familiar or even patronizing. Oh well.
  • I considered making the MULE trivia bumper be about Dani's untimely demise in 1998, leaving her plans for an Internet-capable update of MULE sadly unfinished. This would have helped address the ambiguous-name issue, but I chose the smithore.com trivia as both more interesting and less depressing.
  • A lot more of Joe's music shows up in this episode. He did all the songs except one. I still need to get after him about making a variety of little musical stings using the motif he developed for the theme song, to use throughout the show. Yes, more "Good Eats" style-borrowing.
  • This was the first episode where the host segments were entirely scripted, and even rehearsed a little. You can really tell the difference in quality, comparing them to past episodes, where we tried to improvise more (and largely failed). I did most of the writing, with Joe throwing in a lot of last-minute oddities.

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Episode #5 - Hidden Roles

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This episode's games:

This show was produced between September 2006 and and March 2007, and prior to that we hadn't done any shooting since the end of 2005! I hope to pick up the pace quite a bit in 2007, producing at least four or five full shows. I think we've gotten better at it; you can see a real jump in quality between this episode and the last one, and I think that the next episode will be better still.

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Episode #4 - Tile Games

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[info]prog and [info]mrmorse look at three tile-placement games.

  • Carcassonne, a game of communal map-building and sneaky claim-jumping. We look at the basic set, which was published in the United States in 2000 and remains widely available.

  • The Very Clever Pipe Game, a Cheapass "Hip Pocket" entry that delivers on its title for under five bucks. The two- and four- player variants play quite differently, and we examine both.

  • Pipe Dream (et al), a classic computer game about laying pipe on a grid against a liquid timer. It was a commercial title in the 1980s, but due to its simple concept it's seen many shareware and freeware clones since then. The ones featured on the show include Federico Filipponi's MacPipes and Adam Doppelt's untitled Java applet (which you can find all over the place, in case that link ever goes bad).

The players inlcude [info]cthulhia, [info]ruthling, [info]rikchik, [info]grr_plus1, [info]radiotelescope, marymary, and [info]prog.



This episode features even more music ripped off from Star Control II / The Ur-Quan Masters (a game we reviewed two episodes ago). Our opening song is once again the goofy Orz Theme, and the clangy-bangy number that plays while Matt introduces The Very Clever Pipe Game is the Zot-Foq-Pik Theme. Frungy frungy frungy etc.

The airy music underscoring the opening skit is a composition by the great video game soundtrack composer Yuzo Koshiro for a version of Zork that was released only in Japan for the Sega Saturn. You can find the game's entire soundtrack here.



So, you may have noticed a nine-month gap between this episode and the previous one. The short explanation is that I launched a startup company based around the Volity Network last year, and in December got so deeply involved with it that work on it pretty much precluded every other activity, including any Gameshelf work. All the live footage from this episode was shot at the beginning of December, right before things became crazy.

I would have at least completed editing this episode that month, but at the time I was quite discouraged by the quality of the footage, especially the host segments. Matt and I were mediocre at best in our attempts at scripted skits or game introductions - if we want to keep doing this, we need to either practice more or have a better cueing system. Also, I was dressed terribly; that T-shirt managed to accentuate my programmer's gut, while the clip-mic's drag delicately exposes an off-center hint of pasty white throat-flesh.

While the content of the gameplay segments was great, they also made me sad due to technical problems. The sound levels were way off and at some points barely audible, and sometimes the light was off as well, giving a weird grainy appearance to the Carcassone footage. I fixed what I could in editing but I am not an expert in either, so it's still not very good. You can also hear the players' voices "skipping" during some scenes. At least some of these problems were probably due to the fact that the camcorder I use to export footage onto my computer had been accidentally dropped during one of the shoots, rendering it still working but a bit cockeyed and possibly wonky. So, yes, many small sadnesses.



What's next for The Gameshelf? I'm not sure. I'm still running the company, but have a better handle on my time than I did at the start of the year. On the other hand, I'm going to be taking a day job of some sort soon because the startup ain't paying the bills. I will therefore say nothing now, except that I very much want to continue the show, and am full of ideas about how to make it better. I'll figure something out. Stay tuned. Better yet, stay subscribed through iTunes or something, and you'll get a pleasant surprise sometime in the future. (Which, indeed, may have been the case with this very episode for you.)

If you'd like to watch a video blog about games in the meantime, there is Board Games With Scott. It is different from my show in many ways - it concentrates solely on board games, for one thing, and also focuses more on explaining gameplay than actually showing it in action. But he does a much better job at explanations than we've done so far. Look for future Gameshelfs to gleefully rip off techniques from him.

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Episode #3 - Wargames

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Jmac and guest host Joe Johnston take a look at some fairly recent wargames.

  • Memoir '44, an accessible yet rich modular game of tactical engagements between Allied and German forces in World War II.

  • Gnostica, an abstract wargame played on a shifting deck of Tarot cards. Players use colorful Icehouse pieces to represent their forces.

    The players on the show use my copy of the Aquarian Tarot, which, with its pretty but low-key imagery, is my favorite deck for gaming. I marked up this deck with Gnostica stickers [pdf link], which helps tremendously in remembering all the cards' powers and point values in this game.

  • Warsong, a very deep, story-driven wargame released for the Sega Genesis video game system in 1991. I spent much of the summer of 1993 playing this, and now you too can while away the hours on your computer through a Sega Genesis emulator. Finding the ROM is an exercise left to the viewer cough cough.

I did not like this episode as much as a the previous one, mainly because our regular director, Joe Constantine, had to miss the game shoot. (We currently split the show's footage collection over two shoots: one for games, another for the host segments.) Lee Stewart, who usally does camera, did an admirable job filling it as director for that shoot, and I took over camera duties. My camerawork was rather mediocre, though -- check out the vertigo-inducing focal plane misplacement in some of the Memoir '44 shots -- and I didn't get to play any games!

I need to position the cue cards closer to the camera -- that's why I keep looking to the side -- and have a better idea of what I'm going to say. Until then it's the Umm uhh uhhhhm show, at least during my monologues.

Other than all these technical complaints, I think that the episode content is pretty good. And hey, we used the green screen correctly for the first time (for that intro bit with me yelling at the camera). Looking forward to having more fun with that later.

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Episode #2 - Space Games

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Jmac and guest host Joe Johnston take a look at space-themed games.

This episode looks a lot better than the previous one, don't you think? It was entirely shot in the SCAT studio with an excellent crew. It actually doesn't make use of a "board-cam" we rigged up to continuously film an overhead shot of the table during games. Maybe I'll edit some of those shots in later, but Joe Constantine did such a good job directing the player-cameras that I didn't really feel the need to do the extra work.

I also mention The Interactive Fiction Competition, a.k.a. the IFComp, as an aside before the first segment. If you want to see (and maybe help judge) the latest efforts from the amateur text adventure creation community, do have a look.

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Episode #1 - Medieval Games

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For our first full-length episode, we look at three medieval-themed games.

  • Shadows over Camelot, a (mostly!) cooperative board game that pits the (more or less) valiant knights of the Round Table against the forces of Evil. And quite possibly against each other, as well. Published in 2005 by Days of Wonder and widely available, especially in game shops.
  • Rampart, an arcade game from 1990, widely available these days on the console disc Midway Arcade Treasures Volume 1.
  • Peasant's Quest, an amazingly faithful parody/homage of the famous King's Quest adventure games that Sierra published in the 1980s. Published by those crazy guys at Homestar Runner.
  • Black Knight 2000, a classic pinball machine from the late 1980s. Not really a featured game, but it's seen hanging around in a few scenes. I note this mostly because Jason Joy dug up an MP3 rip of its great background music, which you can hear a little of in the show's closing credits.

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