Friday, November 23, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Bi Lines by Naomi Z

Bi Lines ended up taking 34th place out of 77 games. It average grade was a 5.81, but with an enormous standard deviation. I rated it much higher than the average and think it is a game absolutely worth playing.

The following review is very spoilery.

The author explicitly tells us that Bi Lines has to be understood in the context of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the discussions about sexual assault that were sparked by this all-too-political and yet all-too-personal spectacle. What is it, then, that the game is trying to add to these already copious discussions? The answer is formulated by the editor character, Jacobson. After reading the story that the male protagonist has written about his own experience of sexual assault by a ghost, and after the player character has claimed that it was just a fiction, Jacobson says that it's a great story -- it really "captures the female perspective." That, I think, is the challenge that Bi Lines sets itself. To take a male character and nevertheless capture the female perspective; which is, necessarily and in the same movement, revealed to be 'female' only in a superficial way. The game wants us to understand what it is like to be a victim of sexual assault, even if -- indeed especially if -- our own identity makes it hard to come to this understanding.

Two facts stand out about the protagonist. First, he is bisexual. Being open about this has led to conflict with his mother; and whether you are open about it at the start of the game also makes the difference between being able to have a relationship or not. (Samantha, the romantic interest, is portrayed with little sympathy and we wonder why the protagonist would even want to hook up with her. Since this relationship isn't really what the game is about, this is only a minor point of criticism.) So although he may be living in a man's world, our protagonist still doesn't really fit in. He feels that he can't show himself, that he has to keep a part of himself hidden. This is one of the things that make him unable to open up about the sexual assault by the ghost, because, at least in his own mind, his feelings during the assault cannot be separated from his sexual orientation.

The second fact that stands out is that the protagonist can talk to ghosts. In fact, they need him to take care of them, and he has been taught by his mother to spend all his energy and time helping the ghosts. While ghosts may seem a fanciful element to bring into a game about what is very much a real-life issue, I think it is actually the author's master stroke. Although he is male, the protagonist's special relationship with the ghosts has forced him into a typically female role: that of the caregiver and supporter who lives her life in the service of others and asks nothing in return. And of course, he gets nothing in return -- the ghosts have nothing to give him, and his work necessarily takes place hidden from other humans, in much the way that the housewife's work never comes into the public view and is at its best when it is invisible. What's more, when the abusive ghost assaults the protagonist and then disappears, he is obviously beyond revenge. Like a woman abused by a powerful man, the protagonist can have no real hope for justice.

These aspect of the ghosts are surely drawn quite directly from the Kavanaugh hearings. Many commentators have commented on the different receptions given to Anita Hill in 1991 and Christine Blasey Ford in 2018, explaining it not only in terms of changing times and racism, but also in terms of the demeanour of the two women. Where Hill was combative and angry, Ford was quiet and eager to help anyone questioning her. She gave, the commentators tell us, a better performance of the traditional idea of womanhood -- and that is what made her sympathetic and believable to viewers. But believable or not, the powers that be don't seem to be swayed, and mister Kavanaugh turned out to be just as untouchable to her powers of retribution as any ghost would be.

I found the game to be very effective. You are first drawn into the story and the character; then the assault happens, and is over almost before you know it; but then come the emotions, the guilt trips, the insensitive reactions, the decisions to keep quiet, the judging of the victim. None of it is too heavy-handed and all of it adds up to a chilling experience. Chilling, but not negative, since the very fact that I can occupy the "female perspective" is a good thing and a beacon of hope.

Perhaps the game could have been slightly stronger if its theme had been streamlined a little more. It is, after all, about sexual assault, and the theme of bisexuality feels a bit tagged on. I wonder if the game was originally supposed to explore bisexuality, and only turned into a game about sexual assault during those days of furious coding? Something like that might well have happened, given that the deadline for intents to enter was weeks before the allegations against Kavanaugh even surfaced. But streamlined or not, I consider this a strong and very interesting game.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise

I'll be posting reviews for IFComp games, focusing mostly on games where I think my reviews can still add something to the critical consensus. A good example of that is Carter Sande's Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise, which I suspect to be the most misunderstood game of the competition.

(It probably isn't, because the most misunderstood game is presumably one that I haven't understood either.)

So Geography -- I mean, let's settle on a short name here -- presents itself as an educational tool for learning about Canadian geography by playing a trading simulation. Some reviewers took this entirely at face value and worried whether the game would work in an educational setting. Others did wonder whether Geography was serious or a joke, but nevertheless ended up concluding that it was serious. So let's be entirely clear: this game is a joke; it is satire. Satire wrapped in a perhaps unforgivably clunky user interface, but quite amusing nevertheless.

The protagonist of our game is a commodities trader. That is, he spends his days behind a desk, trading commodities. But the great outdoors beckons and so he decides to take a 30-day vacation, rent a big truck, and try to make it as a real commodities trader, travelling through all of Canada's magnificent and unexplored wilderness... as long as there's a highway through it, of course.

The game is built around the fact that the protagonist has two utterly incompatible wishes. On the one hand, he wishes to make it as a truck driver buying and selling goods at a profit. On the other hand, he wishes to experience the big wide world. But being a truck driver is boring and repetitive, and making money as an independent trader requires research and good planning; while experiencing the big wide world requires, well, the exact opposite of that. So what he ends up doing is a boring, repetitive job made bearable only by his visiting of tourist traps, utterly pre-fabricated experiences that never fail to delight him. Here is a completely representative example:
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, so you figure you've gotta go see Parliament Hill. The Peace Tower stands in the middle of everything, decorated with unique architectural details. You sign up for a free tour, and as the tour begins, you ride an elevator that goes all the way up the tower. Your breath is taken away by the view of the bustling city of Ottawa. You stay up there for a while, enjoying it.

You're glad you took the opportunity to see the capital from a different point of view.
I found the descriptions of the tourist destinations quite hilarious, especially as they never fail to show how everything becomes a shallow cliché to the shallow and clichéd mind. (Unique architectural details! Bustling city! Different point of view!) The tourist traps are also real. One visits the "first bilingual geocaching tour in Atlantic Canada" to get a cool wooden nickel. Surely, this doesn't exist? It does, and it is billed in precisely these words on the Fredericton Tourism website. That's funny, and the fact that our protagonist deeply enjoys all these inane 'experiences' is also funny. At the same time, he is completely blind to any beauty that hasn't been packaged up for him:
You look to your left and catch a great view of Lake Superior. You'd look at it longer, but you need to keep your eyes on the road.
Lake Superior is twice as big as the Netherlands, but our protagonist misses it because he has to keep driving. A bit heavy-handed as a joke, sure, but it had me chuckling.

The game, then, is about consumerist neo-capitalism. We work and work in our boring repetitive jobs, and tell ourselves that our lives are made worthwhile by all the utterly non-authentic experiences we get through consumption. The protagonist is a truly dire example of this. Meanwhile, he willingly goes through a near endless grind of highways, hotels, gas stations, and locations that are identical except for the local tourist trap.

The game is fascinating up to a point, and has a surprising number of different endings. On the other hand, the meaningless grind was, well, a meaningless grind and the awful user interface is, well, awful. The author has done a lot of things well, but has also fallen into the trap of trying to satirise boring stuff by implementing boring mechanics. So I have no problem with people giving the game a low score (I gave it a relatively low score myself); but I do want to point out that there is a lot of good stuff going on behind the bad stuff. There's no way Geography deserved to end up 74th out of 77 game, below two games that are simply broken and cannot be finished.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The interactive fiction competition is over!

The IF Competition has happened. The winner is Alias 'The Magpie' by J. J. Guest, which I unfortunately have not yet had a chance to play. My game, Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 placed at a respectable 16th out of 77. (Relatively speaking, that is exactly as high as Kerkerkruip placed in 2011, when it ended up being 8th out of 38.)

If you haven't checked out the competition games yet, I highly recommend that you do so. For those who are new to interactive fiction, choice-based games are probably easier to start with than parser-based games. (In choice-based games, you generally just click on links. In parser-based games, you have to type commands like "go north" and "put laptop in incinerator".) This year's numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 are all choice-based, so pick what you like!

I wrote many reviews during the competition, but posted them in secret author's forum. You can expect to see revised versions being slowly released on this blog.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

The IF Comp is happening (and I'm in it)

The 2018 interactive fiction competition is happening! I participated only once as an author -- back in 2011 with Kerkerkruip -- but this year I decided to do so again. My game is called Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303, and you can find it in the company of no fewer than 76 other new IF games of all sorts. Play and judge, my friends. Play and judge.

(Since I'm an author, I'll be doing my own reviews in the 'secret' author's forum.)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review of "Plowing right through"

From a formal perspective, the parser based interactive fiction game Plowing right through reminded me of nothing so much as of Adam Cadre's Varicella. In that game, the player character is about to carry out a brilliant if nefarious plot that he has thought through perfectly, but the details of which are completely unknown to the player. Inevitably, the player will fail many times before finally coming to understand what the character he is playing has been wanting to do all the time.

In Plowing right through, we find ourselves in the cabin of a time machine, which has apparently already transported us back into the past. The only indication of the player character's identity is a little note in our possession that says: "Good luck Mitch!" Otherwise, we carry nothing but two extremely well-made latex masks depicting an adolescent man and a woman in her early thirties. You are otherwise given no information about the masks, and when you leave the time machine, you find yourself at a wild teenage party in a very posh home. What to do?

As often in this kind of game, the best information comes from dying. If you simply press the return button in the time machine, you travel back to 2018 and then learn that a man named Mark Judge has just been forced by the FBI to release a home video of a sexual assault, a video that dashes all your hopes of dashing all liberal hopes for a generation. Ignominious failure!

I will not spoil the main puzzle too much, but of course one must first wear the female mask (which, on second consideration, looks a lot like a young Hilary Clinton) and then the second mask over it (which one by now understands to be a precise likeness of an even younger mister Kavanaugh). If you pull off the Kavanaugh mask at the exact right moment during the ensuing scene, the home video shown in 2018 will reveal to all voters that the seeming Kavanaugh assault was actually performed by nobody else than Hilary Clinton, who already in the late 70's desired vengeance for her future loss to mister Trump. In the victorious ending she is, of course, locked up by the president, who is so overjoyed that he even lets Rod Rosenstein keep his job.

I have some major reservations about the game and especially about the fact that it treats a traumatic scenario full of real human pain as nothing but a setting for puzzle solving and cynical means-ends reasoning. But of course, this weakness is its strength, for the game is nothing if not true to its subject matter. Those of us who, in the backs of our minds, were trying very hard (and failing) to suppress the thought "I hope he did something really bad to her, because that might derail his nomination" are shown to be, in essence, identical to the Mitch character from the game. In this way, Plowing right through captures the central fact about contemporary U.S. politics: it makes you feel dirty.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Introcomp 2015: Beyond Division, Deprivation, Walker's Rift

Beyond Division, by Joseph Geipel

A parser-based game about interspecies telepathic communication, Beyond Division immediately creates a positive impression by its implementation. For instance, commands like "follow hare" are understood. During the entire game, the implementation just feels solid.

The writing attempts to rise above the level of the mundane, but sometimes comes off as forced or awkward. A sentence like "Tall trees with tops full of the remnants of unobtainable varmints are scattered all around." does not give us a clear impression of what is going on. "As you wait in the midst of the blizzard, your sense beyond the blizzard improves somewhat." is abracadabra to me. And I'm not sure the verb 'to emanate' is well chosen in "Pure power is emanating all around the cavern from a glowing circle on the west cave wall." But this is nothing that a good round of editing couldn't fix. The general tone is fine and the prose suffices to keep the reader interested.

Other reviewers have pointed to the weird frame story -- apparently about some guy trying to teach you Latin while commenting on his mother's taste in music and his artistic progress -- as something which doesn't show its value yet. I agree. It is highly unclear what the author is envisioning here, and he should make sure that he actually has a coherent vision.

Perhaps more problematically is the lack of direction. While it may not be absolutely necessary, establishing some kind of goal for the player is often important to get parser fiction going. But Beyond Division never really manages to do that. The wolf in the first sequence is merely doing 'stuff' until an 'event' can happen to it; while the various protagonists in later sequences may have an abstract goal to defeat the Tide, but no very clear short-term or medium-term plans about how to do that. The entire sequence could be made more compelling by fixing this.

That said, Beyond Division seems like the beginning of a good game, and I'm interested in seeing the full version. Of all the Introcomp 2015 entries, this is the one I liked most.

Deprivation, by Michael Coorlim

Deprivation: A Story of Obsession and Transferance starts off with a spelling error in the subtitle. Not a good sign. It turns out that most of the prose is better edited, although the writing could be tightened and made more detailed and interesting. For instance, describing a graveyard like this: "At night, it looks far more dark and foreboding, lit only by sporadically spaced lights that illuminate only the paths immediately around them, leaving the gravestones as dark shapes lurking in darkness." betrays a certain imaginative laziness. The sequence "lit / lights / illuminate" isn't very engaging; but the double use of "only" and the triple use of "dark" is even worse.

The game itself gives the player a clear goal -- fall asleep -- but absolutely no clue about how to achieve that goal. You are in your apartment, and apparently, the author just wants you to do stuff. The effect of doing stuff is that the protagonist starts agonising about how his girlfriend left him, sometimes in grotesque ways -- as when he gets under the shower fully clothed and, for some reason that was completely opaque to me, smears his own face with a piece of cake that he has earlier decided he doesn't deserve to eat.

So it seems that the author's aim with the piece is to indulge in flowery descriptions of self-indulgent grief. The soundtrack should be an emo teen band. Given that this was entirely unappealing to me, I quit after the shower incident.

If the author's aim is something else, my advise is to change the game to make it clear to the player that this is the case.

Walker's Rift, by Hope Chow

I have no idea what this game is trying to accomplish, and once again I quit early. So apparently the protagonist is a magical monster hunter of some kind, but it remains entirely unclear what kind of monsters or what kind of hunting we're thinking of. Instead, we are treated to the protagonist's boring office life, and then to an investigation where every lead you follow leads to nothing.

To anybody who wanted to run a mystery/investigation type roleplaying game, I would give the following advice: make sure that any lead followed by the players leads either to a new lead, to some information that allows them to draw conclusions or at least formulate hypotheses, or to a scene that is somehow so engaging that the lack of leads and information isn't a problem. That advice probably also holds for IF. But what Walker's Rift does is that it forces you to follow lead after lead -- sending you to the library, to four different people who have come down sick, and so on -- without ever giving you anything in return. "Yeah," they'll say to you, "I have strange dreams." "About what?" "I don't want to talk about it." And that's it. I quit in boredom.

There's probably an interesting story and game waiting to happen here, but the author should tighten up the plot. Drop us into the action! Make sure that our actions lead to progress! Check out any of the official Choice of Games games to see how this is done: they start delivering immediately, and that's why we keep clicking and reading. Walker's Rift can use something of that.

Final scores

Based on the question: how much do I want to play the completed game?

  • Beyond Division: 7
  • Deprivation: 4
  • Lair of the Gorgonanth: 5
  • Meld: 6
  • Voltage Cafe: 3
  • Walker's Rift: 6

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Introcomp 2015: Lair of the Gorgonath, Meld, Voltage Cafe

Introcomp is a yearly competition for introductions to interactive fiction games. The idea is that authors write up the first small part of their game, show it off, and get some early feedback.
Everyone else in the entire world may vote on as many or as few entries as they like, on the usual 1-10 scale (10 being the best). However, they are asked to judge games with one thought in mind, and one alone: "How much do I want to play more of this entry?"
With that question in mind, let's move to the first three games I played. Some spoilers will, of course, follow.

Lair of the Gorgornath, Part 1: "Bring me the Beard of Nimrod Supertramp", by Andrew Watt

Two things immediately strike the player: the awful title, which promises a combination of overused fantasy tropes and unfunny humour, and the interesting use of colour in the game to distinguish between moments of reality and dream. So we're off to a mixed start.

The game is a choice-based low-interactivity piece about a alow-level spy who is posing as a bounty hunt organiser so he can get a bunch of infighting no-goods to kill a incompetent-but-somehow-effective wizard for him and rescue a princess while they're at it so that he can be rewarded with a fantastic island. There's also something about a slave revolt and an ogre slaver and a beard and a soul in a wart and a whole bunch of other stuff. Which illustrates the game's main weakness: the author wants to cram in so many ideas that the reader has no time to get used to anything or to build up a coherent picture of the world or the situation.

Perhaps the most important thing in alternate world building is pacing. You need to feed your reader facts, but you need to feed them facts at the right speed. And therefore you need to know which facts are important and which can wait. Is this game mostly about the relation between the spy master and the spy? Then that is what we need to focus on, and we can forget about most of the rest. Is it about the particularities of Nimrod? If so, tell us more about Nimrod and less about slave revolts and spy society. Is this game about the relationships between the different bounty hunters? If so, make that the focus.

With focus and pacing, something coherent could emerge from what now looks like a chaotic mess.

Another problem of the game, in the current context, is that it does not feel like an introduction at all. It is short, yes, but it is also self-contained. A situation is introduced and resolved. The end. This might work as a prologue to a larger work, but I cannot see from what we have here what that larger work is going to be.

Meld, by David Whyld

David Whyld is a very experienced writer of IF, so it is not surprise that the game is technically competent. The setting could be a bit more exciting, though: right now most locations are defined by a single traits ("it stinks", "there's a grumpy guy") that don't really enhance our understanding of where we are. It also doesn't seem to make much sense. How can there be a tavern with dozens of patrons behind a locked gate that never opens while you're waiting outside? Why, if someone is blocking an alley, can't I just take another street to get to wherever I want to go?

The game is based around a melding/unmelding puzzle mechanic, which might be used to good effect in future puzzle design. However, from what I see here the mechanic is just too random. I have no idea which items can be melded or unmelded, so I'm reduced to trying every combination I can think of. Once I found myself just typing 21 different meld commands to see what was working, and not getting any aha-feeling from observing failure and success, I decided to quit.

Could be a nice game if David manages to make melding a bit more predictable.

Voltage Cafe, by anjchang

The writing is very sloppy, full of misspelled words and missing line breaks, and in general it just lacks any kind of polish. The implementation too is, especially for such a bare game, beneath par: eating something, which is one of the few actions you can take, doesn't give any reply, and commands like "ask her for coffee" don't seem to be implemented. (You have to "order coffee" instead.)

There's a general lack of direction here. It seems that you just have to order coffee and other stuff, drink and eat it, and type "write" an awful number of times. The basic message appears to be that if you drink enough, great thesis ideas will keep coming, and somehow, they'll all gel together into coherent chapters. After you've typed "write" often enough, you win.

As a game, this is hardly a success; as a depiction of writing a thesis, even less so; and I have no idea what the rest of the game could possibly be about, so I don't think it works very well as an introduction either. In this case, my advise to the author is to drop this idea and start with something else.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

IF top 50 results

Thanks to the 38 people who voted, we have a new "Interactive Fiction top 50". The results can be found here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Victor's Variomatic #1: "Till Death Makes a Monkfish Out of Me"

Want to play some interactive fiction semi-together? Check out the topic I just opened on the interactive fiction forum, where I invite everybody to join in playing Mike Sousa's and Jon Ingold's 2002 TADS2 game Till Death Makes a Monkfish Out of Me. I hope to see you there!

IF Top 50: Last reminder!

Today is the last day you can vote in the IF top 50, so please go to the forum topic or send me an e-mail if you haven't done so yet.

(Realistically I'm not going to finalise my spreadsheet before Monday 20:00 GMT, so if you wake up on Monday with the horrible realisation that you've forgotten something important -- well, consider that your grace period!)

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Reminder: IF Top 50 Voting

You still have one week, until the 15th of March, to send in your votes for the Interactive Fiction Top 50. You can either post in that forum thread or send me an e-mail. Lists can contain up to 20 titles, but less is also acceptable!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Interactive Fiction Top 50

In 2011, I organised a vote for the Interactive Fiction Top 50. You can find the thread here and the results here and here. Now three and a half year have come and gone, and it is time for a new vote. So please participate!

The aim is not to decide what the best IF ever is by majority vote -- that would be foolish. Rather, the aims of the top 50 are:

  • To create a good opportunity for people to think about the best games they have played, and discuss their ideas on this topic with others.
  • To allow people to be inspired by what they see on other people's lists.
  • To create a useful list of great games at which you can point newcomers to the IF scene.
  • To create a way to track how the taste of the community evolves.

To make this work, I need your help. Please send me a list of between 1 and 20 interactive fiction games that you consider to be the best IF games ever made (or at least the best that you have played). The list can be posted in this topic, or mailed to, where you replace "myfirstname" with my first name. Which is Victor. You can also email me if you want me to post your list on the forum (in case you don't have/want an account). Here are the rules:

  • You can list between 1 and 20 games.
  • The order in which you list the games is not important. The total number of points a work receives is the total number of votes it gets.
  • You can list each work only once.
  • You can list multiple works by one author.
  • You can list your own works.
  • It's up to you to decide whether a work counts as interactive fiction. As a rough rule of thumb, anything that is or should be listed on the IFDB is suitable. (Response to question: commercial games, including the Infocom titles, are fine.)
  • We are asking you to identify the best interactive fiction, not the most influential, most important, most innovative or most accessible interactive fiction. (But of course, if you believe that influence, importance, innovation or accessibility are important parts of being good, that is fine.)
  • The deadline for entering your list is 15 March 2015.
  • The organiser is allowed to participate. (It's good to be making the rules.)

You don't need to do anything except send in a list. However, the whole thing will be a lot more fun if you also post the rationale behind your choices in some public place.

I hope to see many of you participate!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Digital Antiquarian

One of my favourite websites if Jimmy Maher's blog The Digital Antiquarian. Jimmy writes long articles about the history of computer games, with a focus on innovative games, and with occasional forays into the history of (home) computing in general. That would already be interesting enough, but what makes The Digital Antiquarian a must-read, in my book, is the combination of Jimmy's painstaking original research and the intelligence and perhaps even wisdom of his literary/ludological criticism.

I'm not being paid to say that. Rather the opposite, since I just signed up at Patreon to support the blog. But I wanted to support the blog in more than just a financial way, and hence I'm writing this to get all of you who are interested in computer games, gaming in general, or digital history, to click on the link and sample The Digital Antiquarian for yourself. It is totally worth it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

To judge or not to judge

I'm not sure whether I'll be judging the IF Comp this year. Mostly that is just because it is a time-consuming process and I'm busy, but that is a reason so banal that I would not needlessly consume your time by sharing it in such a public place. This post is about another, deeper reason. "Deeper" doesn't necessarily mean "more important", but it does mean "more interesting".

Here is the deeper reason: I'm no longer sure what judging something like the interactive fiction competition is supposed to be. And that's because I'm no longer sure what my relationship to the authors is supposed to be.

The relationship between reader and author can take roughly four forms. (There are undoubtedly more, but they may not be relevant to this discussion.)
  1. The author can be the producer of a product which the reader consumes. The demand that the reader makes on the author is to provide a product which pleases the reader's particular tastes, and judgement is given depending on how much it did in fact please. This judgement is unapologetically subjective.
  2. The author can be the creator of a work which the reader attempts to helpfully comment on. Instead of being producers and consumers in a market place, here we conceive of ourselves as part of a limited community of people who help each other out, and who share the goal of creating works that are as good as possible. We try to be positive, or at least constructive. We point out what went wrong, but with the aim of teaching the author to do better next time. And "better"doesn't necessarily mean "maximally pleasing to us," since we recognise that not everyone in the community has the exact same tastes. Our judgements are inter-subjective, and made with a view to community standards.
  3. The author can be the mostly irrelevant  person in the background of the work itself, of which we attempt to be the critics. We must let the work speak for itself, and we must then do it justice. Our aim is to understand the work perhaps better than the author did; to show its wisdom or its folly; to learn from it how our craft works; and to increase our understanding of whatever themes the work is about. Our judgements strive to be objective and appeal to the unlimited community of critics (which includes all of the future), even though we know that we will always fall short. And the judgement might well be that a work is entirely worthless. Achieving artistic success is hard.
  4. The author can be a person trying to communicate personal experiences, and we are the sympathetic audience of potential friends. We might get a narrative about a boy struggling to tell his parents about his homosexuality, and we understand that this is the author's attempt to work through his own experiences in this situation, or perhaps those of one his friends. We are not called on to judge, or at the very least, we know we have to be careful with judging. Generally, friends ought to listen; maybe give advice; perhaps help out in some other way; but, in most cases, not judge. And we are at least in some sense the author's friends; those with whom he or she attempts to talk about whatever is painful and hard to talk about.
Now, I have never had any trouble choosing between these relations when writing about books or works of interactive fiction. With books, I choose resolutely for number 3. The book is the work of art; I am the literary critic; and the author is irrelevant (and often dead). With interactive fiction, I have always tried to create a mix of number 2 and number 3, depending on the maturity of the author as author. Someone new to the form can use some encouragement from the community, so I'll try to do more of 2. (I know I have often failed at this, sometimes massively so.) An established author is probably more interested in real criticism, especially since quality criticism is often much harder to get than craft advice.

But the two relationships I've always resisted being in are 1 and 4. To judge a work simply by how much pleasure it has given me is shallow and overly subjective. And who cares? Nothing irritates me more than so-called reviews that merely expose the subjective likes and dislikes of the reviewer and then either congratulate or castigate the author for catering or not catering to them. And to not judge a work at all, but accept it as the tale of a friend -- well, I want to say, I'm not your friend. If you want to talk about difficult stuff in your life, by all means do so, but do so in private situations, not in the public channels that we use for the dissemination of art works.

And I still largely agree with that sentiment. But I also have to come to terms with the fact that this neat distinction between public and private has weakened, and will continue weakening. It is becoming routine to talk about your private life in semi-public places like Facebook, and completely public ones like Twitter, internet forums, newspaper columns, or, indeed, novels and pieces of interactive fiction. And so my blanket dismissal of everyone who releases a work of art in order to talk about his or her subjective feelings is no longer fair. I might still resist the trend. But it would be unjust to hold those who follow the trend accountable for not sharing my resistance. And indeed, given that public means of communication have opened up new ways for people in minority positions to find recognition and develop their voice, that resistance itself is becoming increasingly unjust.

Sharing your pain has nothing to do with art. (Pain can fuel art, but the pain must then be transformed into something that is no longer the artist's pain.) But I am not enough of a Nietzschean to claim that art is the ultimate goal, and that human suffering is insignificant compared to it.

And so, while I can still dismiss 1, I have to reconsider my position with respect to 4. Is it really the case that interactive fiction community is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? I don't think I am in a position to make that decision -- nor do I wish to be in that position. And is it really the case that the interactive fiction competition is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? One might think that a competition is not the channel for voicing one's pain or other feelings. But even that is not clear. The competition is like a megaphone; it amplifies one's voice far beyond what is possible outside of the competition. It is more than a competition; it is also the prime place for speaking in our community. Making it off-limits to certain voices and stories would constitute an act of injustice, even if one had the best arguments in the world for it based on the essence of competitions or the traditions that constitute "us".

I bring all of this up not because of an academic interest in different form of judging and not-judging, but because, if I am at all right about current trends, 4 has become more important in our community in the last few years. And this leaves me in a bind. For while I can see how to combine 2 and 3, I really don't see how to combine 2, 3 and 4. How can I judge and not judge? How can I focus on the person behind the work and strive to forget that person in order to see the work objectively? There may be some Hegelian synthesis waiting to happen here, but I'm not seeing it.

How to judge the interactive fiction competition? I don't think the organisers could solve my problem by giving rules for that -- those rules could still be unjust, and "Befehl ist Befehl" never exculpates -- but what they do say only makes things more difficult for me. For this is the current slogan of the competition:
An annual celebration of new, text-driven digital games and stories from independent creators.
This then is supposed to be, not just a competition, but also a celebration. But how do those things go together? How can we judge and celebrate at the same time? Isn't celebration an event in the realm of mercy, rather than one in the realm of judgement?

How to judge the interactive fiction competition?

How to judge at all? With the division between the public and the private gone, how can we do justice both to subjectivity and objectivity, to our being able to speak as well as to our being able to speak? How can we capture in one thought, in one discourse, in one work both our individuality and our transcending of that individuality -- both of which are essential to our humanity?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Indie Intiative Bundle of Holding

If you have any interest at all in pen and paper RPGs, you should get the Indie Intiative Bundle of Holding (for sale for another 20 hours, so be quick). It contains many of the most important games to start the indie RPG movement. So much so, in fact, that the list of games basically is a list of everything I bought and played between 2002 and 2007. I can assure you that the following games are all excellent, both to play and to study:
  • Breaking the Ice
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Trollbabe
  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Inspectres
  • My Life with Master
  • Polaris
  • Sorcerer
  • Universalis
I have not played octaNe and Munchhausen, but they are well spoken off.

All for less than 23$! It's an offer you should not refuse. I didn't refuse, even though I already owned nine of them in physical book form.

Monday, May 19, 2014

[Trollbabe] Why trollbabes aren't dogs

This is a post about Ron Edward's RPG Trollbabe (2002) and Vincent Baker's RPG Dogs in the Vineyard (2004). I'm not completely sure which of the two I played first, though I think it was Dogs. It has definitely been the case that I've seen and played Trollbabe in the past as if it was a somewhat simpler version of Dogs, though of course set in a rather different setting.

Why would you think the two games are closely related? Well, Trollbabe is acknowledged as an important influence in the text of Dogs. But looking at the games themselves, we can see three very important similarities:
  1. The protagonists of both games are outsiders who come to a community in trouble, will influence that community throughout what is probably a single play session, and will then leave for a new "adventure".
  2. In both games, the GM prepares by thinking up something that is at stake or going wrong in the community, and preparing a couple of characters that have views about the situation and interests in seeing certain outcomes come true. Then it's time for Story Now.
  3. In both games, the player characters are only ever at risk if the player decides they care enough about a certain issue to put themselves at risk. Death is only possible if you decide that a conflict is worth dying for.
Given these similarities, I naturally assumed that Trollbabe and Dogs in the Vineyard were very similar games overall, and the GMing one is almost identical to GMing the other. This was a mistake, and I think my earlier lack of success with Trollbabe can be attributed to it. I didn't really get the game, because I was looking at it with the wrong assumptions.

So, what's the difference? Let's start by summing up a few things:
  1. Dogs is made for party-based play. The assumption is that you and your fellow dogs move from town to town together. Trollbabe, on the other hand, does something that always made me raise my eyebrows in surprise: at the start of the game, it lets all player choose a location on the world map. They can choose the same location, but they can also all choose different ones. Even when they choose the same location, the trollbabes are not assumed to form a group (though they may do so if they choose).
  2. In Dogs, conflicts are conflicts between a number of sides (often two) that all wish for a certain outcome. All sides roll dice, and all sides decide how far they want to escalate the conflict. There is no fundamental difference in this regard between PCs and NPCs, between the player and the GM. In Trollbabe, on the other hand, every conflict is one trollbabe's attempt to make something happen. Only she sets stakes; and only she rolls. The GM never sets a goal, never rolls, and never decides whether an NPC wants to continue the conflict or not.
  3. The dogs in Dogs have a very specific role in society; they are appointed to judge people's sins and set communities aright. That doesn't mean that everybody will always listen to them, or do what they say; but it does imbue them with authority. They are also responsible for the communities they visit; walking away on whatever mess they may find is not really an option, at least not for as long as they want to be dogs. Or rather, it may be an option, but an extremely radical one that implies the extreme judgement that a particular community is literally damned. And whatever the dogs judge to be the case is supposed to be true; after all, they're the chosen servants of god. The trollbabes in Trollbabe, on the other hand, have neither authority nor responsibility. They are powerful, and people will see them as threats or opportunities, which means that they act as destabilising elements in any tense situation. But they don't have authority or responsibility; their judgements are not sanctioned from above; and in fact they are under no compulsion to judge.
Now if you expect Trollbabe to be just Dogs with simpler mechanics and more fjords, all these differences will appear to be weaknesses of the game's design. What Dogs is extraordinarily good at, indeed what it has been designed to do, is to give you complex situations in which your players must come to judgements even though fair and equitable judgement may be hard or may have harsh consequences. They enter a town. Something is amiss, and it is their job to find out what it is and to make things right again. They'll start pursuing this job. As the GM, you can have NPCs drag them into conflicts. There will generally be differences of opinion between the players, and because they're all in it together, this leads to immediate in-game tension between their characters. There's one big huge conflict situation, and the players must -- and more or less automatically will -- go to the heart of it before the session can come to an end.

But how do you make that same thing happen in Trollbabe? Players don't have the same strong motivation to enter a situation; you can't drag them into it; and their fellow players might be somewhere else entirely. It just doesn't work! Only if you are very lucky will the good Dogs in the Vineyard stuff start happening! Ron Edwards, fix your game!

Except that, of course, you shouldn't be striving to make the same thing happen at all. The new edition of Trollbabe has a passage which made me write down "Trollbabe isn't DitV!". It is on page 88:
Judge as you please. Characters in the adventure location will be constantly in her face, and she will like them or not, and interact deeply with them or not. The adventure as a whole is not your problem. Although the Stakes exist, and your trollbabe's presence influences what happens to them, it is not your job to identify them and decide upon them in any way. Focus instead on the characters she meets and what she does with, to, or about them.
A trollbabe is not a dog. She really doesn't have to judge. And a Trollbabe player is not a Dogs in the Vineyard player. She really doesn't have to go to the heart of the conflict situation; and if she does, she can deal with it any way she damn well pleases, even if that means walking away from it all in disgust, or turning it to her own -- rather than the community's -- advantage, or taking a sudden liking to one NPC and taking care of them while they let the rest of the mess take care of itself.

In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM will build a town where if the dogs don't intervene, everything will become steadily worse. The town is on the way to Hell, quite literally. In Trollbabe, you don't have to do that as the GM. In fact, everything could end up just fine if the trollbabe doesn't come along. (And who's to say what "fine" is, anyway?) The conflict is a backdrop against which the trollbabe will come to life. Sometimes, that may mean she interacts deeply with it; sometimes, it may mean that conflict goes its own way, perhaps a completely non-climactic way, while the trollbabe pursues other interests. That would break a game of Dogs, because it would destroys the basic premise of its fiction. But Trollbabe is in a wholly different genre.

And when you stop trying to imitate Dogs and start playing Trollbabe, it actually works. In the game I recently played with Michiel and Erik, the two players chose radically different approaches. Michiel's character saw it as her mission in life to ease tensions between trolls and humans; she came to the conflict location because she had heard rumours of such tensions; and she involved herself deeply in it and tried to set things right. Erik's character, on the other hand, was an amnesiac only interested in finding out the truth about herself. She learned about the conflict situation, then killed off almost everyone involved in it because that would bring her quick personal advantage in gaining her goal. The original stakes -- whether a certain guy would be able to marry his love -- were resolved, I guess, when that guy was killed; but the killing had nothing do with his love. The conflict I had thought up was something Erik's character just didn't care about.

And it worked! Both stories were interesting, fun, and memorable. It just turned out to be the case that Erik's story was about how we and his character found out that she was ruthlessly in search of power (and in fact had recently turned herself into a trollbabe in order to achieve that end!), and not about some poor guy's attempt to marry. (Or about his relationship with his troll slave, a nice secondary tension I had set up.) It was still a good story that made all of us eager to see more.

Conclusion: it's really hard to read games without preconceptions, but those preconceptions can ruin your play. A good game text -- like the 2009 edition of Trollbabe -- can be very, very important in setting things right. A blog post like this may, perhaps, also help.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Item weights in DCSS

In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup -- one of the best current roguelikes --  there is a discussion going on about the removal of item weights. Even if you have never played DCSS, you probably know what they're talking about, because this has been a feature in D&D and all kinds of RPGs for a very long time. A player has a certain limited weight she can carry, depending on her strength; and item weights are needed to calculate whether that limit has been reached. So, does this mechanic add anything to the game? Here are my two cents, which I just posted to the crawl developers mailing list:
Inventory management is not a very interesting part of Crawl strategy, nor is Crawl the kind of game where it could become interesting with just a few tweaks.

Inventory management is interesting when it forces you to make tough choices. There are basically two ways to achieve this. One is to make sure that items are not retrievable once discarded. This can be done in several ways, for instance by having non-permanent levels (Angband) or a strict food limit that doesn't allow much backtracking (Brogue). In both of those games, inventory management plays a big strategic role. But Crawl is more of a move-through-the-dungeon-at-will game, with permanent levels and plenty of food. Which is good, but allows players to keep a stash and retrieve whatever they want, thus taking the bite out of inventory management.

A second way of turning inventory management into hard choices is by having a very limited inventory; so limited that the player must leave behind some of her basic tools. Suppose that the player can carry only three types of item. Then you suddenly have to choose between carrying scrolls of teleportation, potions of healing, potions of berserk strength, and that ring of fire resistance. If you leave the ring in your stash, you're in trouble when you get into a fight with a fire-breathing dragon.

Crawl's inventory limit is so large that the player can always carry all her most central tools, and the limitations only affect niche items, convenience items, and large stacks. And this too is something that probably shouldn't be changed, because a super-limited inventory is a better fit for a small, tight game than for a sprawling game like Crawl.

Thus, so as far as I can see, inventory management is never going to be a particularly interesting part of Crawl strategy. It still serves a function, though: it keeps things simple and convenient for the player. That may sound a bit counter-intuitive, because struggling with your inventory limit may not feel very convenient. But it is: better to have to discard a couple of items now and then, than to end up with an inventory of 472 things in which you can never find what you need.

Given that the Crawl inventory limit is mostly there for the convenience of the player, it should be as convenient as possible. The goals of an inventory limit are best served by having a limited number of inventory slots. Item weights & carrying capacity just add a second inventory limit which adds complications without any benefit.

And to speak from experience: I have sometimes increased my strength in order to increase my inventory limit, even though I knew that it was better for my character to increase intelligence; I did that just because frequent stash trips were boring and inconvenient. The optimal strategy should always be a fun strategy. Which means that in Crawl, item weights should probably go.

Now, I can see that this is already more or less the consensus, but perhaps this post can still add something to any discussion that might be going on. :-)

Anyway, thanks for the great game, and keep on the way you developers are going. I am often impressed by the quality of the design discussions here.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

[Trollbabe] Using a map

Last weekend, I finally got to play a game of the second edition of Ron Edward's Trollbabe. I played the original version several times, but never with huge success. This new edition, though, was something I really wanted to try. What we usually think of as "the system" hasn't changed a lot; but what has changed is that Ron now gives a lot of detailed description of how to actually play the game.

For a moment, I was tempted to call the new stuff "GM advice". But it's not advice. It's rules, it's system. It may not be about rolling dice and writing things on character sheets, but it is about things like:
  • Who gets to start scenes.
  • What information you can and can't add to a scene once a conflict has been declared.
  • Who gets to declare a conflict.
  • What the maximum stakes for a conflict are.
  • How you prepare a scenario.
  • How you share narrative control over NPCs.
  • What arc the narrative development of an adventure follows.
In other words, all the stuff that you need to make decision about anyway, but that many role playing games -- even great role playing games -- leave you in the dark about. Trollbabe really is the best introduction to "story now" role playing that I know of.

My plan, then, was to play Trollbabe exactly as written and see what would happen. (Spoiler: it was a success! I'll be writing more posts about that in the future.)

Now one of the things that didn't change, and that I never got to work well in the previous edition, was starting a new adventure. The idea is very simple. There's a map of the world, and when the adventure starts, each non-GM player picks a location on the map where they want their trollbabe to currently be travelling. (These locations can be the same for all players, but they can also be on different sides on the world.) The GM then creates an adventure for that location.

The problem I had with this approach is that the player's choice felt completely arbitrary. Sure, you could choose an island, or a mountain range, or a forest ... but those aren't exactly interesting locations by themselves. And there wasn't anything more concrete on the map. Also, as a GM, the map location didn't inspire me. "An adventure in the mountains... hm ..." Nope, no immediate inspiration coming.

The book does contain two smaller maps with some place names, but those didn't inspire me either; and I've never had a player choose to be in one of these smaller maps anyway.

While waiting for the players to arrive, I suddenly had an idea: I should draw my own map! I literally never do that for an RPG, because I generally don't care about detailed geography in my stories. But I had decided to play Trollbabe as written, and it uses a map. Plus, I gathered that a map might be needed in this game to give the wandering character something tangible to wander through.

So I started drawing a map. Islands, rivers, swamps, forests, mountains, hills, villages, towns, some special sites. I didn't have much time, so a lot of the map remained white. But I did make sure to give some of the locations interesting names, names that made them places that I would be interested to explore. There was a weirdly coloured plane near the coast called "de kaalheid", which means "the baldness". There was a tiny island far out in the sea named "Hargans dwaasheid", that is "Hargan's folly". There was a big forest called "woud der verwachting", which means something like "forest of anticipation".

Then, when my two players -- Erik (van Maanen) en Michiel (Bouwhuis) -- arrived, I had them both choose spots on the map, and I gave them the opportunity to add one or two new named features. Both quickly made a choice. Erik wanted to be on the beach of "de kaalheid", while Michiel chose a spot near a famous old battle field and added "de trolford" to the nearby river. We also gave the river a name. Erik decided that "de kaalheid" contained huge skeletons of ancient animals.

This time, the map locations actually inspired me as the GM. The player's choice of a place on the map also felt like a real choice, especially when they added a few details.

Now Ron Edwards makes it very clear that Trollbabe is not a game where the players and the GM co-create the scenario. What is going on, who the NPCs are, and what they want, all of that is up to the GM and is prepared in advance. (Though not long in advance. And of course, things can quickly go into unanticipated directions.) Well, wasn't I breaking that by having the players add stuff to the map? I don't think so. GM preparation of a scenario happens after the players choose a spot on the map to be in. So as far as I'm concerned, that spot on the map is fair game for player interventions. It's only after that that the GM gets full control over the setting.

Okay, maybe I wasn't playing Trollbabe exactly as written. But it worked really well, and in fact, this may have been the best use of a map in any RPG I've ever GMed. Also, drawing a map was fun. And I really want to know what that forest is anticipating. And why Olaf the Black's ruin is a ruin. And what the people in New Stormholm think of the people in Stormholm. And what was so foolish about Hargan.

More about the game soon.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Kerkerkruip 9 released

The Kerkerkruip team is happy to announce the release of Kerkerkruip 9, by far the most extensive update of the game ever made. Kerkerkruip is a short-form roguelike in the interactive fiction medium, featuring meaningful tactical and strategic depth, innovative game play, zero grinding, and a sword & sorcery setting that does not rehash tired clichés.

With over 700 commits to the code repository, the changes made in Kerkerkruip 9 are far too numerous to mention here. But the highlights are:
  • Original theme music for the main menu, composed and produced by Wade Clarke.
  • An entirely reworked reaction system allows you to dodge, block, parry and roll away from incoming attacks. Successful reactions increase your offensive or defensive flow, adding a new layer of tactical depth to combat.
  • An entirely reworked religion system allows you to sacrifice absorbed powers to the gods. Worshipping gods grants lasting benefits, including divine interventions on your behalf; but losing absorbed powers makes you weaker in the short term. Religion thus becomes an important aspect of the player's overall strategy.
  • Grenades can now be thrown into adjacent rooms, opening up new tactical options. However, your enemies may sometimes manage to throw them back to you!
  • A powerful new grenade is the Morphean grenade, which puts people to sleep. If you become its victim, you'll find yourself drawn into one of several dream sequences: weird and dangerous adventures that have an effect on the real world.
  • The hiding system has been streamlined, boosted and made far more transparent. Stealth has now become a viable option.
  • The player now starts out with one of several starting kits, necessitating different approaches to the dungeon.
  • New content includes the angel of compassion, a radiant being that loses its lustre as people die around it; Israfel, a terrible angel that can split into two smaller beings for increased combat effectiveness before reuniting to heal; and the Arena of the Gods, where you can defend your god's honour against other divine champions.
  • A new Menu implementation which is both screen reader friendly and hyperlink enabled.
We are now also offering stand-alone installers for specific operating systems. While it's still possible to download the game file and run it in your favourite Glulx interpreter, there are also installers for Windows and Debian/Ubuntu. We will be supporting OS X in the near future.

Finally, we have a new website at That's where you should go for downloads, more information about the game and how to contribute, and a link to the wiki.

Kerkerkruip is presented to you by the Kerkerkruip team: Victor Gijsbers, Mike Ciul, Dannii Willis, Erik Temple and Remko van der Pluijm. We hope you enjoy the new version. If you've got any comments, or if you'd like to contribute to this free software project, please go the website for details and contact us!