Sunday, February 27, 2011

2010 in IF

Assuming that the Wikipedia editors know their English, the title of this post should be correct idiom, weird though it sounds to me. Anyway, with the XYZZY Awards awarded, it seems as good a time as any to look back on 2010, both for the scene as a whole and for me personally.

Interactive fiction itself

On the one hand, 2010 was not like 2009 -- nothing came out that I loved as much as Blue Lacuna, Make it Good, The King of Shreds and Patches and (to a lesser extent, because it was so much shorter) Alabaster. On the other hand, we did see a large number of good games. For evidence, just look at the IF Comp: places 14 to 16 are Leadlight, Gigantomania and Under, in Erebus, each of which is really good. Thirteen games placed above them. And many good games appeared outside of the competition.

What were the highlights of 2010? The following list will be an eclectic mixture of games that everyone loved, games that I loved, and games that I think have not received enough attention.
  • Looking at the XYZZY awards, one might get the impression that the only game to matter this year is Aotearoa. Of course that is not true, but it is very fine game: a boy's adventure story with great animal NPCs and so much polish you can shave in it. (I voted for it in the categories Best NPCs and Best Setting.)
  • Hoosegow is a puzzle game that jumps into Wild Western absurdism with two spurred, stinking boots, and thrives. The puzzles are a bit too 'classic' for my taste, but there is some excellent help material that will get you through -- which it totally worth the effort. (I voted for it in the categories Best Writing and Best Implementation.)
  • Rogue of the Multiverse is a wild ride that takes us from standard exploration to a weird abstract mini-game, and then continues with action sequences, romantic plot twists, and anything else it can throw at us in the space of an hour. Not necessarily deep, but fun, and it's crowning glory is Dr. Sliss, who is this year's Violet. (I voted for it in Best Game, Best Individual NPC and Best Use of Innovation, though I'll admit the latter category didn't contain any of the games I wanted to voted for.)
  • Want to see the perfect escape-the-locked-room game? Look no further than Fragile Shells. It doesn't transcend the genre, it doesn't expand it or give it a twist; but it certainly perfects it. (I voted for it in the category Best Puzzles.)
  • Perhaps this year's largest game was One Eye Open: the splatter horror wasn't exactly to my taste, but it is easy to like this game for its ambition and the care lavished on it. Up there with the cream of the crop.
There were a lot of other good games, obviously -- I'm just giving you the highlights. I'm not done yet, though. I have saved the best for last. Or at least the most special. The next three games are the ones that made the biggest impression on me, even though I can see why they might not win the XYZZY for Best Game:
  •  Gris et Jaune: this evidently unfinished competition game had a better setting and story than anything else that came out this year. The bizarre and yet believable protagonist; the odd mix of the mundane and the magical; the detailed attention to its source material; the suspenseful plot -- Jason Devlin, you must bring us another release of the piece! Please? (I voted for the game in the Best Story category.)
  • Breaking many of the received maxims of IF design is seldom a good idea, but Gigantomania made it work often enough to astound me. Its failing are as obvious as its successes, but if there is any 2010 IF game that we must think about as designers, this is it. Sitting behind my computer with a chess board, playing out the Pearl of Wijk aan Zee, even as I was navigating through the mind of Stalin... it was an experience I have not yet understood. (I'm planning to write a SPAG Specifics about this game; but no promises.)
  • Finally, Being There was hardly a game at all, but it was one of the most joyous pieces I have ever come across. Or, as I said in my IFDB review: this is a game where when you see a soccer goal, you can type "play soccer" and the game responds with: "You play soccer with an invisible ball... you score!" How cool is that?

This list does not include the weird white-space piece of Adam Thornton: I played a short part of it and almost died laughing, but I am under the impression that there will be a more full and official release in the future. If I'm wrong, I'll have to revisit it.

Then, we have the list of shame, which is the list of potentially good games that I have not yet played. This list was quite long a week or three ago, but I managed to play through quite a number of games as the second round XYZZY deadline came nearer. Right now, the only game I know I still have to play is Mite; and perhaps I need to spend some more time on Following a Star and getting someone to give me a walkthrough for Allein mit Kai. I'm probably missing out on some other games simply because they haven't come to my attention.

In other news, this years has seen the usual gradual improvement of the authoring tools and interpreters. I am pretty excited about GLIMMR, which I haven't explored yet but looks very cool on paper.

2010 also saw the German IF scene get a huge boost, with a website, newsletter and Inform 7 translation all being made or improved; and quite a number of German games were released. That's good news, because the scene did seem to have died a few years ago.



Interactive fiction and me

After three years of not releasing anything, 2010 was a relatively productive year for me. I released three games (The Art of Fugue, The Game Formerly known as Hidden Nazi Mode, 'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus), an update for Figaro, and the Inform ATTACK extension with extensive documentation. This is not fully satisfactory for me, since none of those games were the "real thing", if you understand what I mean -- the first is not really IF (since it contains no fiction), the second is a rather slight game originally made to make a debating point, and the third was mostly a test and experiment. The "real thing" still lies in the future. But getting the extension out, experimenting, and getting some of my more tangential ideas out of my mind by getting them into code, well... that's all bound to help, right?

(And I did finish my PhD thesis, so that may count for something. After months of delays that I could do nothing about, it has now finally been sent to the committee. I also finished some non-interactive fiction I was working on. But still... I always feel like I could be so much more productive... and it never really happens.)



Interactive fiction and you

So, what were your highlights of 2010? Feel free to put them in the comments or write them down on your own blog (in which case you might want to post a link in the comments). I'd love to hear from you -- not in the last place because this may help me find out which games or developments I overlooked.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Braid; Achievement Unlocked; Upgrade Complete; Desktop Dungeons; Starcraft 2; Torchlight

Those who keep an eye on the IFDB will have seen that for the past few days I have been playing IF like there is no tomorrow -- basically a belated attempt to play everything that has been nominated for a XYZZY award. But I would like to take the time to talk about some of the non-IF I have been playing as well. So without further ado, we start with

Braid

After the phase of frustration and despair, and the phase of bafflement and anger, there is the phase of careful reflection. One thing I have learned from the encounter with this game is that one should not persevere, or at least I should not do so. If a game frustrates you with its gameplay, then you are not going to be in the mood to appreciate anything it does right. If you dislike playing it, don't play it.

This is not as much of a no-brainer as it may seem. It is, for instance, not true for books. I dislike reading Sein und Zeit because of the style, and yet the book gives me insights that make it worth persevering. To a lesser extent, this is also true for fiction: I found the first half of Ulysses very rough going, but the whole experience is one of the most amazing literature has ever given me. But neither Heidegger nor Joyce enraged me, while Braid did. Presumably this is because (a) reading is less active than playing, and it is worse to be made to do something one dislikes than merely being made to sit through it; and (b) challenging as they are, those books were not constructed as challenges to stand between the player and progress, while a puzzle game like Braid (or for that matter, a skill game) is.

Lesson: if you dislike a game, don't play it.

Normally, this isn't a very important lesson, because one follows it automatically. But Braid had so much good press from exactly the right people that I felt compelled to continue playing long after it had become apparent that I was not enjoying myself -- a kind of compulsion one must (obviously, in retrospect) not succumb to.

Emily Short writes:
Not to mention that the frustration level when I fail for the Nth time is off the scale more annoying than any frustrating moment in IF. I am in most aspects of life a pretty low-rage person, and I don’t get vehemently upset when my luggage gets lost, I have to stand in line for a long time, I have to spend half an hour on hold with customer service, the IRS screws up my tax return information yet again, etc. But failing the same platform level over again after many many tries, and seeing nothing specific I could improve for next time, does make want to scream obscenities and throw things. Which is ridiculous and out of character, and also a big fat hint that I May Not Be Having Fun.
This was basically what happened to me (though Emily specifically excludes Braid). Whereas other people were enjoying trying things out in order to find out the exact rules of the game, I was getting so little enjoyment out of platforming and so much frustration out of failures, that every puzzle that could not be solved by logical thinking alone felt as a personal insult. That is of course a stupid reaction, and says more about me than about Braid, but I think it is interesting in the context of the debate that is raging right now about some of Blow's comments about interactive fiction. For me, interacting with the IF parser feels good, while platforming feels bad -- it's not that I'm bad at it, it's just that it feels like an unnatural and unenjoyable form of interaction. (I have no problem with platform-like games that do not involve dexterity tests, such as Professor Fizzwizzle, nor with 2D-shooters like the original -- the original original -- Duke Nukem. But anything even remotely like Mario makes me cringe.) For other people, it is the other way around. Does this mean that game criticism is doomed to be more subjective than other forms of art criticism? If one enjoys reading canonical literature, one will probably appreciate all the central works -- taste plays a role, but it is hard to imagine any lover of canonical literature who finds Shakespeare or Homer or Aristophanes or Tolstoy literally unreadable. But it is easy to imagine lovers of computer games to find whole genres literally unplayable because of a basic distaste of the kind of interaction around which the genre is built.

Since I have said enough about what I disliked about Braid, let me end by saying two positive things. First: I loved the way the music reacted to the time mechanic. Second: the art was good. Not really my taste, but good, and I love seeing a game that looks differently. (Has anyone ever noticed how DirectX has made every single 3D game look exactly the same way?)


Achievement Unlocked

Achievement Unlocked is a small platform game -- wait, I just said I hated all platform games, didn't I? The good thing about this game is that you don't really have to succeed at anything, so the mechanics don't really matter. Basically, this is a game with very little gameplay but a ridiculous amount of achievements. You get achievements for playing for 30 seconds, dying five times, and so on and so forth. As a satire on the achievement systems that are so in vogue, it is quite funny.

But what really made this game for me is that fact without thinking, I googled an achievement guide and started trying to collect them all. Ouch! You have shown me how easy it is to manipulate me.

(By the way, achievements are probably defensible if they function as interesting challenges. Thus, many of the Starcraft 2 single player achievements ask you to do something that makes the mission significantly harder, which adds a level of depth and replayability. This in contrast with other achievements in that game, e.g., "Win 250 1v1 league games as Terran".)


Upgrade Complete

From the people who brought you Achievement Unlocked, there is also the perhaps even funnier Upgrade Complete. This is an up-scrolling 2D space shooter, in which you can buy upgrades. Upgrades that make your ship better. Upgrades that enable more options in the menu. Upgrades that add music, or a mute button, or copyright text, or better graphics. Fantastic stuff, and of course another send-up of a familiar, effective and yet mostly empty form of game design.

The best thing about the game is that you need 0 skill to get through its 20 levels: whether you win a level depends perhaps for 10% on your skill, and for 90% on your upgrades. Which is as it should be in a game like this, but which is also frighteningly close to the reality of, let's say, many MMORPGs.


Desktop Dungeons

A blog post by Andrew Plotkin made me download Desktop Dungeons. Unfortunately only for Windows and OS X, and it doesn't run well under Wine -- but on the other hand, perhaps that is good, because that way it cannot tempt me away from doing productive things when I'm booted into Ubuntu.

This is a fantastic little game: a one-screen (mostly) deterministic rogue-like with stationary monsters. Can that work? Yes, it works perfectly, and the range of tactics made possible by only a small amount of differences between the races and classes can serve as an inspiration to all prospective designers of tactical combat games.

(By the way, it is pretty trivial to turn ATTACK into a deterministic combat system. I'll try to add this to the documentation for the next release.)


Starcraft 2

This is the game that has been eating most of my gaming time over the past few months (though I am deceasing this). It is, of course, brilliant. If you like RTS at all, you ought to play Starcraft 2. Both the single player campaing and the multiplayer experience are incredibly polished and well thought-out. The game is not very innovative (to say the least), but perfecting an old design can be a perfectly respectable thing to do.

One thing that makes me sad, however, is how tactical (rather than strategical) the game is. You will spend most of your time and mental capacity on controlling small groups of units and keeping track of the many details of your base, and very little on large-scale strategic decision making. This makes me sad because in games like these I prefer strategy over tactics. Supreme Commander, though evidently less well-designed than Starcraft 2, is in principle much nearer to the RTS game of my dreams.

There seems to be little hope of that RTS of my dreams materialising, though.


Torchlight

 This Diablo-like game has gotten very good reviews, and I can understand why: accessible, friendly, easy to look at, fast-paced but with as much down-time as you wish. But you're mostly just clicking on things. Great game when you are feeling mentally exhausted, but a bit empty when played in any other state of mind.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Braid: I persevered.

First, there was the phase of frustration and despair.
This was the phase of bafflement and anger.
Finally, I got to the phase of careful reflection.

Special message: There are apparently a lot of people for whom playing Braid was a positive emotional experience. That's great. But if that's the case, you may not want to hear someone venting his Braid-hate, in much the same way that you do not want to hear someone saying bad things about your lover. If that describes you, you should skip this post. I am going to vent my hate. This is not going to be a very rational analysis. It's therapy. It's frustration. There will be arguments, but there will also be rhetoric. You were warned.

I persevered... and almost wish I hadn't. That was it? This "revelation", and these pieces of completely disconnected, meaningless prose were what I endured all those keyboard-smashing moments of frustration for?


Don't let anyone tell you that the game is "easy", and more about "puzzles" than about "platforming". It's not. It's full of nasty platforming moments. That supposedly great final level with the nanosecond-tight timing for jumping on some ugly brown guy three times, pulling a lever, and then jumping down just in front of another guy so you can sneak through a small passage unharmed before the fire gets you -- that was what made me want to hit Jonathan Blow most. The "elevator action" (or whatever) level where you have to drop a ring, jump on a falling ladder and climb up all during the one second that you are still glowing green is a good runner up. And there are so many more.


And the puzzles! Some were really good. There were a couple of excellent levels, where I actually had fun. But there were so many other levels where finding the solution required you to somehow intuit what the unexplained rules of the game were. For instance, that same "elevator action" level has platforms that make you glow green. In previous levels, platforms that made you glow green were immune to time running back. In this level, they are not. Why? Nobody knows. How you are supposed to know this is unclear. These puzzles are not to be solved through thinking, but through trial and error.


The most egregious example of this lack of information is the level where you have to grab a key your shadow is holding as he falls into a spiked pit. Absolutely nothing in the game has suggested that you can grab a key someone else is holding -- in fact, I'm almost certain you can not grab a key held by a monster and they cannot grab a key held by you. (In both cases, one must first kill the other person.) So how can this puzzle be solved except by divine inspiration? Well, by reading a walkthrough.


I have already written enough about the prose in my previous post. No, wait, I haven't. This stuff is so bad that you could base a "learn to write" course on just the fifty or so sentences that occur in this game: every possible mistake will be exemplified. Let's discuss one new example: "[...] a light that [...] illuminates - or materializes! - a final palace where we can exist in peace." If you don't know what the verb "materialize" means, that's okay. Really, it's fine. But if you don't know what it means, please don't use it. It means: "to come into being". This is intransitive. You cannot use it in a sentence with a direct object. Seeing it used in such a sentence makes me cry. It is ugly. It is meaningless. Ugly and meaningless things make me sad. Go and reverse time to undo your mistake.

I have an explanation for the badness of the prose. In this interview, Jonathan Blow talks about his double bachelor in English and Computer Science:
English is very much creatively-driven. It's mostly analysis and interpretation and history of literature. And basically, the entire bachelor's degree in English is all about bullshitting things. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.
Jonathan Blow believes that when it comes to English, you don't have to know what you are doing. You don't have to know what you are talking about. In university, he has learned to bullshit things. And he has put this skill to excellent use when writing the prose for Braid. It's all first-grade bullshit.


So, after hours of torture, one gets to the final level. According to everyone on the internet, it (a) shows that Tim really is the evil guy, and (b) the whole game has been playing in reverse time. But (a) has been obvious from the moment that we heard that Tim wants to cultivate a "perfect relationship", because as soon as someone says that you know they are a psychopath murderer who regularly talks to the mummified remains of his mother. And (b) just isn't true, unless I am supposed to accept that Tim is a guy who has this weird relationship with gravity where he can only go down using ladders or enemies, but can go up to any platform at will through thin air. Granted, the final level is somewhat interesting, but generate deep insight or recontextualise the game it did not. (And when I say that it was fine, I'm of course talking about the story, and not about the obscenity sequence where you have a nanosecond to jump on an obscenity monster, pull a lever and jump back down again in order to not be hit by that obscenity firewall. Obscenity Jonathan obscenity Blow. Obscenity. There is a difference between generating tension -- think of the firewall in that excellent Starcraft 2 mission, Supernova -- and generating frustration -- think of the firewall in Braid.)


And then there is an epilogue which gives us a lot of disconnected pieces of text that don't mean anything to me. And a lot of empty books. Apparently, the story Blow wanted to tell is about an atomic bomb, even though there is not a single sentence about an atomic bomb that I have seen. But that's fine: if you have something important to say, you don't just want to say it! You want to hide it! You want to say other things, and the really smart people will know that you actually mean something else. Or something. Or whatever.


Braid is a piece of crap. I actively hate it. As far as I can remember, it is the only game I have ever actively hated.


It is also a game that has gotten almost unanimously positive reviews, that has moved people deeply, that has brought joy and inspiration to thousands. This makes me willing to sort of suspend judgment. Maybe I do miss something. Maybe the problem is with me, not with Braid. (For the record, I believe aesthetic worth to be non-subjective.) This is possible. If you loved the game, please continue to do so. I am not here to dissuade you. But I very much doubt that you can dissuade me of my opinion -- although the comments are open, and you are allowed to try.


(But perhaps it is better to not have a lot of discussion. One of the things I dislike most is talking about something I love with someone who hates it -- it will always, in some measure, and assuming that one takes one's discussion partner seriously, poison one's subsequent enjoyment. I dislike having my enjoyment poisoned, and I dislike poisoning other people's enjoyment. Let's put this message at the top of the post as well...)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Braid: should I persevere?

This was the phase of frustration and despair.
Then there was the phase of bafflement and anger.
Finally, I got to the phase of careful reflection.


I finally got around to playing Braid, a game that has been talked about a lot. Here is Jay is games:
one of the truly astonishing aspects of this game is the deeply involving story, which sweetly lures you in at the beginning, and blows your mind as you travel onward.
Here is Emily Short:
It’s of course a masterpiece in the game-play area, and doesn’t need me to say so.

Here is Eurogamer:
Braid is beautiful, entertaining and inspiring. It stretches both intellect and emotion, and these elements dovetail beautifully rather than chaffing against each other. Still wondering if games can be art? Here's your answer.
Well! That sounds great. But I have now played through World 2, World 3 and a couple of levels of World 4, and I have not enjoyed myself at all. I have not seen a deeply involving story. I have not encountered anything that could be called a "masterpiece in the game-play area". I have not seen beauty, have not been entertained, and have not been inspired. Is there something wrong with me, or should I just persevere and get to the parts where it all suddenly becomes good?

My gripes with the game are the following. First: it is a platform game. Oh, the reviewers claim it is a puzzle game, but you'll be spending 5% of your time solving the puzzles and formulating plans, and then 95% of the time trying to execute them. It's all about jumping at exactly the right moment, pressing the arrow for exactly long enough, and so on. This is not masterful game-play, this is boring game-play. It is very literally rewind-and-try-again-until-you-get-it-right gameplay. The puzzles are good, and I would love to enjoy them; but why on earth did they have to be embedded in Mario? It kills all the enthusiasm that the puzzles might give me.

(Everybody hates jumping challenges, right? I remember that when Half-life cam out, the reviews were unanimously positive -- except that everyone hated the jumping challenges at the end. Little skill, lots of repetition: whose idea of fun is this? And in Braid you don't even die, which means that there isn't even the feeling of tension that could perhaps give enjoyment.)

Second: there is supposed to be a "deeply involving story". But I have spent a couple of hours with Braid, and I have not seen any story except for the "stories" told in text at the beginning of each world. To say that these are poorly written is to be very merciful. This is the introduction for world 3:
"For a long time, he thought they had been cultivating the perfect relationship. He had been fiercely protective, reversing all his mistakes so they would not touch her. Likewise, keeping a tight rein on her own mistakes, she always pleased him."
"But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications. To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life's achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn."
"Tim needed to be non-manipulable. He needed a hope of transcendence. He needed, sometimes, to be immune to the Princess's caring touch."
"Off in the distance, Tim saw a castle where the flags flutter even when the wind has expired, and the bread in the kitchen is always warm. A little bit of magic."
Just pick a random sentence from this piece of text and send it to Adam Cadre. You will have a fair chance of winning. What could it possible mean to be "fully couched", and that "within the comfort of a friend"? What prose could be more bloodless than one which contains phrases like "a mode of existence with severe implications"? And if these lines contain any insight into the human condition, I fail to see it.

Avaunt, princess! For I am immune to your caring touch.

Later on, we get such jewels as: "Tim only felt relieved after the whole visit was over, sitting back home in the present, steeped in contrast he saw how he'd improved so much from those old days." Which is not only plainly ungrammatical, but also contains the phrase "steeped in contrast". Steeped in contrast.

Let's ignore the quality of the prose, and look only at the contents. These are slim, and what I've seen definitely doesn't add up to anything resembling a story, let alone a "deeply involving story" that "sweetly lures [me] in at the beginning". It's more like random quotes taken out of cheap self-help books.

So, uh... am I missing something here? Given the reviews, I feel it just cannot be the case that my treatment of the game is fair; and yet, it seems to be fair based on what I have seen. So I'm confused. Is the good stuff going to come later? Should I continue playing Braid? What on Earth is going on?



By the way, I did like the bunnies. So cute and evil.

Monday, February 07, 2011

More PAX - some questions

Unless something weird happens, I am coming to the PAX East IF meeting. I've got a couple of practical questions that soem of you, who know the area better or have been there before, can possible help me with. :)

1. It seems that hotels are pretty expensive in Boston, starting at about 100 dollars a night for a single room. (By contrast, around here I have often booked a room for two people for two nights for only a little more.) If that's how expensive they are, so be it, but if I am simply not aware of how to find cheaper hotels, please tell me.
2. I'm going to divide the few days after PAX to visiting Boston and New York (where I know someone I'd like to pay a visit to). Is Boston a good place to hang out for a tourist, or should I move to New York as soon as possible?
3. What would be the best way to get from Boston to NY.? I've seen that there is a high-speed train, which my European insticts tell me to use, but perhaps US trains are awful and to be avoided at all costs. :D

Any advice would be appreciated.