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On how IF resembles poetry, and how that kind of sucks

I encountered this conversation a couple of months ago while idly thumbing through my list of saved Twitter searches, of which “warbler’s nest” is one. The first poster is Mark Sample, a humanities professor at George Mason University.

I found myself struck and unsettled by Mark’s qualified agreement with the “tech without a readership” comment, mainly because I recognized immediately that I had no ground to disagree with it myself. What an elegant way to praise a medium’s beauty and potential while condemning its prospects for widespread appeal: It’s like poetry.

Ever since the 2010 IF revival I’ve been among those insisting that parser-based IF deserves a wider audience in an increasingly game-centric world, and should strive to find novel ways to overcome its main obstacle to help newcomers jump its first, steep hurdle: the text prompt itself, with all its hidden expectations and assumptions. I still stand behind this notion.

However, between Mark’s observations and Emily Short’s thoughts from earlier this year, I sway also towards embracing the bittersweet truth that, even allowing that it has room to grow, IF might simply be unable to support an audience past a certain size — a vanishingly small size, if we wish to compare its audience to those of all other sorts of digital games. The medium must remain obscure by the very attributes that define it. Take the parser away, and you can make a much more immediately accessible work of digital writing that probably isn’t the kind of game I am thinking about.

But I write no eulogies here! I see a future where authors, including first-timers, will continue taking parser-driven IF in startling and wonderful new directions, even more than we see today. The world will not rush to play these works, but they’ll still find their way into the machines and minds of players who know how to appreciate them — many of whom make games themselves, and who will allow these works to influence their own.

This small audience shall remain just large and chatty enough to sustain a halo of new players — even if that means that a significant number of these newcomers will discover these works via university courses and other forms of formalized learning, instead of the day-to-day cultural-transmission channels that more accessible videogames get to ride. Just like poetry.

If most of the game-playing world forever assumes that IF is a long-dead form, suitable only for nostalgic pining for green-on-black, you-have-died maze crawls, then it brings its own silver lining: over and over, another influential member of that world will delightedly discover that this is not the case, and rush to spread the message. Those of us in the know will roll our eyes at the headlines but grin anyway and carry on, and so will be medium.

Parser-based IF will continue to revolutionize, astound, and inspire. Quietly.

Posted in Jmac on Games | Tagged , , | 16 Comments


The first of several tweets I have seen from game-players all making the same comparison:

I find this at least as inspirational as I do humorous. Is there any better medium than games for taking a concept like “86 percent probability,” which the lazily pattern-seeking human brain is predisposed to gloss as a sure thing, and illustrating in full interactive clarity what that number means in practical application?

Should Obama not win today’s election, I’d be willing to wager that, of all the people who would crow about how Nate Silver’s predictions were entirely wrong, not a single one of them would have ever played a dice-heavy tactical combat game.

(Obligatory: I am writing this in the mid-afternoon on the east coast of the US on election day, and there’s a good chance that the first time you read this, you too are a US citizen whose polls are open for a least a while yet. You have voted already, right? Yes? OK, good.)

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A little rot13 followup

A couple of quick followup links from my post about using rot13 for game spoilers:

  • K. Adam White wrote a jQuery plugin that gives JavaScript developers a trivial way to add rot13 features to their applications.

  • Becca Turner has a simple bookmarklet that runs text you select in a browser window through a rot13 rotator. Works for me in Mac Chrome, but alas not in Safari. (You can find plenty of other folks’ own rot13 bookmarklets through the obvious Google search, as well.)

My dream remains seeing rot13 encoding as a one-keystroke command on native Twitter clients outside of web browsers, but between then and now lies the task of making many more of my fellow blabbermouth game-fans appreciate this new application of an old hack. So, onpx gb jbex.

(The obvious fix-it-yourself solution here involves writing a plugin, which ought to fall within my means — but alas, there doesn’t seem to be much of an ecology for plugin-supporting Twitter clients, at least among any that I’ve heard much about.)

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Let's use rot13 for game spoilers

ThirteenThis post contains minor spoilers for Fez, but only if you deliberately decipher them.

Yesterday I asked this question on Twitter:

Fez hint request: Jbhyq vg or jbegu zl gvzr gb gel qrpvcurevat gur jevgvat (abg gur ahzoref) nf n fvzcyr pelcgbtenz?

I have asked spoiler-class questions about games, films, or books in this format before, usually to little response. In retrospect, it’s clear that I assumed too much in expecting any friend or follower to see it as anything other than gobbledygook. In yesterday’s tweet, I tried an extra step with appending that URL, and to my delight received several nice replies on Twitter and Facebook — as well as a handful of retweets, which I read as compliments on my chosen encryption method.

Some of my correspondents on Twitter chose to adopt the same encoding. “Anu,” advised one reply. “Pbairefvba vf cerggl enaqbz.”

“V’z gbyq gung gur jevgvat vf n fbeg bs zrgn-chmmyr,” countered another, “fb lrf.”

As suggested by my included URL, these tweets are all encoded in rot13. This is a trivial substitution cipher where each letter in the message is replaced by the letter found 13 places later in the alphabet (cyclically, so that after Z comes A again). Because the alphabet is twice 13 in length, one follows the same steps to decrypt this text back into the clear. Thus, Hello, world! rotates into Uryyb, jbeyq!, and vice-versa.

Unlike many other sorts of encryption, rot13’s goal doesn’t involve preventing unauthorized readers from comprehending the text it affects. Rather, it requires that the reader merely perform an additional, deliberate action to read it. When properly contextualized, an implied contract exists between the ciphertext and its decoded version: the reader who deciphers this text understands its implications — in the case of my tweet, that it may spoil some aspects of the videogame Fez — and is willing to bear any risks therefore attached. In other words, readers who go through the trouble of decoding the text have only themselves to blame if the results make them sad.

The anonymous maintainers of the website did not invent rot13; the site simply offers a simple encryption/decryption service at a pleasantly short URL. Decades ago, users of the primordial internet fora known as Usenet made frequent use of it to politely mask text that some people might not wish to read by accident, and popular news-reading software often made rot13 cycling a one-command operation. While some web-based communities, such as the excellent Making Light, continue this tradition when discussing sensitive material, for the most part it’s no longer common practice in core internet channels.

I have missed it. I love discussing games and novels and such with my friends on Twitter and other media, but I dislike how painfully general the public conversation must stay, as we all tiptoe around each others’ spoiler sensitivities even though many of us are eager to dive into details. (And let us not even mention those who can’t help themselves and blurt things out anyway. My own spoiler alarm bell lies on a hair trigger.) Rolling the archaic but by-gar functional tool of rot13 into Twitter seemed a marriage worth attempting: a tweet is only a wee bucket for text, and a rot13 message ain’t nuthin but text.

Mind you, rot13 encoding isn’t the only way to drop public text into a Caveat Lector envelope. For my Fez question, I could just as easily have slapped it into a pastebin somewhere, in which case my tweet would have looked something like this:

Fez hint request:

However, I see several drawbacks here. It’s not clear at a glance what clicking that URL will actually display, especially to those unfamiliar with (Those who are familiar with it wouldn’t be blamed for not wishing to visit an ad-riddled webpage, while readers who don’t know me personally should probably assume it’s an enticement to crack open some odious spam or worse.) Rot13-encoded text, however, carries by nature the literal size and shape of the text it masks. The meaning of my Fez post is obscured, but its length isn’t, nor is the fact it ends in a question mark. The reader can decrypt the text in confidence that it won’t be anything other than a short question, exactly as advertised.

Furthermore, encrypted text enjoys the same level of permanence as the medium that carries it. Twitter’s public stream is variously archived by individuals and entities small and large, and statements and conversations encrypted in a two-way encoding like rot13 will continue to be readable by anyone for as long as those archives exist, with no reliance on external websites, URL shorteners, or anything of the like. While it doesn’t necessarily matter to me that future generations be able to read my random videogame help requests, I do prefer to keep my communication simple, and letting messages remain entirely self-sufficient seems always a better option to me.

Yes, we must still rely on the presence of a rot13 encode/decode tool, or otherwise — I hardly expect Twitter followers to put their stream-scanning on hold to pick up a pencil and manually decipher my masked messages. But they used to be ubiquitous within pre-web internet browsers, and I dare to dream that one they we may see them become a common feature once again.

I would love to see a new tradition of rot13 usage taking root in online discussion media like Twitter. It’s easy to get started — just follow my lead, using a tool like to encrypt your most spoilerific text. Open with a brief, unencrypted header in subject-line format to provide the necessary context — “Question about Inception:” or “Half-Blood Prince mini-rant: ” or what have you. Close with a link to, just like I did in my Fez tweet, and watch how easy it can be for a good idea to spread.

Image source: CAPL.

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Follow @TheGameshelf on Twitter

A few days ago I finally activated the long-dormant @TheGameshelf Twitter account, setting it up with Twitterfeed so that it automatically tweets links to new Gameshelf stories. If you love Twitter and you dig this blog too, do consider giving it a follow. [1]

[ The remainder of this post sinks into blogging-philosophy ruminations. Feel free to skip, or read the rest and play spot the tenuous connection the author draws to games. ]

I found motivation in an excellent article I read elsewhere in blog-land recently, an observation on how following seems to be eclipsing subscribing as the most salient verb for plugging oneself into a favored web-based information source. (I foolishly failed to bookmark the story; if this rings a bell to anyone, drop a note and I’ll link with gratitude.)

This notion complemented a worry I’ve long held that RSS and similar tech is just one step too nerdy for most people; plugging a subscription URL into a separate feed reader application (be it a desktop app or Google Reader) is fine for the technically oriented, but I can’t imagine a normal person hitting a “Subscribe” link, seeing a FeedBurner page that presents a bunch of weird, ugly buttons and the instruction to “click your choice”, and then doing anything else except quietly closing the browser window. A Twitter link, at least, provides clear instructions on how to follow up: Press this single, giant, sparkly button to permanently follow this feed! OK, done!

(Facebook’s fall-down simple Like! button on the page itself is simpler still. But I don’t like Facebook, and so have no current plans to adopt this button.)

Naturally, I love our technically oriented readers — and I’m not blind to the reality that a blog about games is going to have an audience that skews nerdy. But that doesn’t mean I wish to limit access to the nerds alone, and as we chew deeper into blogging’s second decade, I find it increasingly hard to deny that social networks have become a critical support for any online publication that wishes to attract a readership wider than those who know how OpenID works.

Why, yes, this does remind me of my feelings about browser-based interactive fiction, versus the old style of making the player go hunt down an interpreter before they can play your game. (See what I did there?)

[1] Not to be confused with @GameShelf, the twitter account of a game shop in Ontario.)

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My (vicarious) GDC takeaways

bsg and redder.jpgThanks to Twitter, I found myself vicariously attending GDC this year. Allow me to recount some of the more interesting things I heard people talking about.

Anna Anthropy released REDDER, a puzzley explore-and-collect game, free to play on the Newgrounds portal. Unlike When Pigs Fly, her previous effort, the difficultly comes not from its demanding feats of digital dexterity, but rather from the large size of the world, and the things about the world you must learn and remember while you strive to collect the shiny treasures. Give it a try, and block out a couple of hours to play it through if you like it.

One reason why I like Anna's games in particular is the same reason I liked watching the latter-day Battlestar Galactica so much. Ron Moore, BSG's executive producer, took advantage of internet publishing to create and release commentary tracks, in podcast format, almost at the same time the shows aired. They felt less like a producer reminiscing about a past project, and more like lectures about the challenges and strategies of putting an episodic TV show together, spoken by someone who was still in the thick of it.

Similarly, Anna is at least as active in presenting lectures and articles on level design (which we've linked to before) as she is with releasing actual games. Soon after I started When Pigs Fly and saw the grassy turf three screens over from the start, I may have said "heh heh" out loud. I felt that I knew exactly why she put it there, even though it had no explicit in-game effect, and I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't been reading along with her exegetic work.

Ian Bogost gave a presentation at GDC, titled "Play With Us", about how good games connect authors with their audiences in ways also seen in good poetry. He's posted its text and images on his website.

Pound's poem leaves enough room to see the Metro riders as the doleful subjects of labor, or as glistening Venuses amidst the iron.

The reader does not "receive" the message of the poem, but excavates its images and uses those to craft relevance.


The relationship of player to game is like that of the archaeologist to the ruin. A game is a remnant of something fashioned and disposed by its creator.

When we play, we excavate.

Read the whole thing, please.

Jason Roher, best known today for Passage, recently announced his next independently published game, Sleep is Death. This essentially looks like a tool for setting up and game-mastering two-player online storytelling RPGs, with each player sitting at a separate internet-connected computer.

I myself lack the creative muscles to get much out of storytelling games -- that is, light-ruleset role-playing games where the main goal of players and GM (when there is a GM at all) involves telling a story together: more improv theater than dungeon crawl. However, I must treat the timing as quite auspicious, given my recent appeal to the heavens for more experimentation with online multiplayer games. As such, I anticipate the game's release with eager curiosity.

I will be interested to see whether this project appeals to crowds larger than the niche who is already enjoying tabletop storytelling games, including expressly two-player works such as Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice. I predict that Sleep is Death won't launch any sort of narrativist-game revolution, but that it will introduce people to that niche who should have been there all along, and just didn't know it yet. To the rest, it will be food for thought. And this will be a net win.

Please do click through the charming and clever demonstration slideshow, which mimics a gameplay session while showing you everything you need to know to get excited about this project (if you're me).

Image credit: Battlestar Galactica publicity still by SyFy; chubby little astronaut art by Anna Anthropy.

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Follow the MIT Mystery Hunt on Twitter

I am once again participating in the MIT Mystery Hunt this year, playing on the team "Immoral, Illegal & Fattening", a group of 40 or so solvers out of the many hundreds of hardcore puzzle fans in attendance. This will be my seventh Hunt, but my first since I starting getting into the ol' Twitter, and as such I quickly became consumed by that question that held no meaning before 2007, but now occurs to me with curious regularity: What is the hashtag for this?

For lack of a more obviously correct solution, I decided last week to get all Wikipedia on the problem and boldly declare that the tag would be #mysteryhunt. And so, apparently, it is. Anyone - Twitter-using and otherwise - should feel free to follow that tag to see the latest chatter about this most unusual annual event. As I write this, the tag exists in that pre-event state where its tweets are mainly involved with complaints of air travel while all the players gather, so it remains to be seen how it goes from here.

Honestly, I don't know how well this will work, compared to, say, a hashtag attached to a conference. Because the Hunt is a competitive event, with teams generally not wishing to provide information that might accidentally help their opponents, it wouldn't surprise me if things clam up tight once the solving gets underway, and then burst out with a flood of mingled celebration and disbelief as soon as one of the teams wins. Then again... yeah, I have no idea.

Anyway, there it is. Enjoy!

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Conquer by the Clock

Another little bit of behind-the-scenesery for you: I had a great deal of fun raiding The Prelinger Archives, a collection of public domain films, to fill out the Diplomacy episode's visuals. I expect it to be a well I'll return to often for future episodes.

One film I borrowed from extensively was Conquer by the Clock, a jawdropping American propaganda film from the WWII era. Not only is its delirious visual motif of belligerent, floating clocks wonderful (and quite useful for recontextualizing), but its message is a fascinating window into the psychology of a nation completely mobilized for war. Of particular note is the lesson that every time you take a break from work, soldiers die (and/or go insane). Think of that, the next time you take a minute to screw around reading game blogs!

On another note, I've added Twitter and Facebook links to the bottom of every post on this site, as well as a few other small design changes. Feel free to let me know what you think of them!

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Gameshelf on Twitter, more or less

I'm sitting on a rumbling pile of Gameshelf show news that isn't quite ready to announce yet. In the meantime, allow me to say that I've become a Twitter convert, and you can read my daily steam-venting @jasonmcintosh. Feel free to construct your own narrative about what the heck I'm working on based on a reverse-time reading of my 140-character burbles.

Should I make a separate twitter account for The Gameshelf? I'm thinking it needs one for sure only if the show gets back into a regular production cycle. Until then, you'll have to content yourself with the ramblings of its producer, and the fact that he's just as likely to talk about delicious ham sandwiches and dorky web technologies as he is about games or do-it-yourself TV production. (But I do tweet a lot about that stuff, too.)

P.S.: Gameshelf cast and bloggers should feel free to share their Twitter IDs and links in comments to this post, if they wish. My pre-Web2.0 sense of propriety prevents me from doing it for them!

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