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SPAG Specifics: Photopia and Rendition

SPAG #53 has just been published, and in it you will find my detailed analyses of Photopia and Rendition. Please enjoy them, and consider writing something for SPAG yourself! Reviews, analyses, essays - more or less anything that has to do with interactive fiction is appropriate.

[IF Competition] Snack Time!

I have already played 13 games in the IF Comp, but I've only written about 6 of them--so it's definitely time to crank out some more not-quite-reviews.

Lest the opportunity for small talk given to me by the necessity of filling this space with more or less meaningless sentences go to waste, I will now tell you that this competition will always be linked in my mind to the music of Meatloaf. I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a week or so ago, and now I'm putting on Meatloaf songs whenever I start playing IF. My reviews will probably suffer.

Here we go, talking about Snack Time! by Hardy the Bulldog & Renee Choba.

What is good?
This is a very polished effort. Not only is the interaction smooth and painless, the author has also anticipated all kinds of funny actions.The game has its own voice, being told from the perspective of a puppy. This makes what would otherwise be a very standard puzzler much more distinctive.The puzzle - for it really is just a single puzzle - is…

[IF Competition] A Martian Odyssey

I have already played 11 games in the IF Comp, but I've only written about 5 of them--so it's definitely time to crank out some more not-quite-reviews.

Lest the opportunity for small talk given to me by the necessity of filling this space with more or less meaningless sentences go to waste, I will now tell you that this competition will always be linked in my mind to the music of Meatloaf. I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a week or so ago, and now I'm putting on Meatloaf songs whenever I start playing IF. My reviews will probably suffer.

Here we go, talking about A Martian Odyssey by Horatio.

What is good?
Alien landscapes are good! Overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination, and I'll forgive you many things.Basing your work of IF on an existing story can be good as well. This territory hasn't been explored that well, and I welcome further exploration.What could be better?
I said "overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination", and that is ex…

[IF Competition] Project Delta

This is a spoilery post about Project Delta by Emilian Kowalewski. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark. So:

What is good?
As far as there is a game, it seems relatively well implemented.What could be better?
If you want to show off your new IF-authoring system, you can do two things. First possibility: you…

[IF Competition] Channel Surfing

This is a spoilery post about Channel Surfing by Mike Vollmer. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark. So:


What is good?

This game has a lot of ambition, and then some. It is a scathing criticism of television in general and stupid game shows in particular. It offers a cynical view on politics. And if that i…

[IF Competition] Nerd Quest

This is a spoilery post about Nerd Quest by RagtimeNerd. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark.

What is good?
It's written in Java, which means it is cross-platform compatible. And indeed: it runs perfectly on my Linux installation. Even better: it runs within my terminal of choice!What could be better?

[IF Competition] Recess At Last

This is a spoilery post about Recess at Last by Gerald Aungst. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark.

What is good?
The implementation is clean, bug free, responsive. This makes the play experience smooth and pleasurable.There are some good hints within the game, and I always had a clear goal.What could be …

[IF Competition] Afflicted

Let us talk about the games in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. Instead of proclaiming judgement over the games and giving them a mark for all to see, I am planning to write reactions in the form of constructive criticism and advice to the authors. Hopefully, that will be more useful. (Specific bugs will be emailed directly to the author.)

All these posts will contain spoilers - consider yourself warned.

(Emily Short gave me the idea of changing the settings of my blog so that it will only send a couple of sentences, rather than the whole spoilery post, to sites like Planet IF. So if you are wondering why it's changed: that's why.)

Without further ado, here are my comments on Afflicted by Doug Egan.


What is good?
Afflicted is an example of a kind of game that is slowly becoming the "standard", replacing the old puzzler. It is not quite puzzleless, not in the sense that Photopia and The Baron are puzzleless (i.e., written with the explicit goal of never having the…

Portal

Okay, I just played Portal, which has seen a bit of discussion in the IF world, so it might be interested to comment on it here. Also, this game has been hailed as something that can evoke great emotional responses through effective storytelling and characterisation.

This is going to be completely spoilery, so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read on.

The game is certainly too short and too easy; there wasn't a single puzzle in it that had me stumped for longer than a few minutes. The final boss fight was exciting, but not terribly hard either. (F6 and F9 are your friends.) I hope that the advanced maps are more challenging; otherwise, those portals are a brilliant puzzle idea left woefully underexplored.

The player character is constantly pestered by a female voice that talks her through the tests, but reveals itself as unreliable in the first thirty seconds. The writing here lacks all subtlety. The voice tells you things like: "Your safety is ensured if you ***st…

Deadborn from the Press

Emily Short points out a problem that is certainly not unique to interactive fiction, but which is more of a problem for us since we cannot afford to lose as many authors as (say) the community of novelists can. She writes:
There are lots of good games that don’t get reviewed nearly as much as they should, and authors have drifted away because the amount of response their work received was not enough to keep them interested. IFDB helps a bit, because it provides a low enough barrier to entry for review writing that more people seem to be interested in writing more reviews, and that’s terrific. But there are also still quite a few works that have not gotten the reception they probably deserved.I think this is a serious problem, and it would be very good for our community if we could keep this from happening as often as it presumably does. (If we can, that would also lessen the grip that the IF Competition has on our community.)

So, as a very small step in that direction: here is today…

Am I a Zinester?

In an article in The Escapist, Anna Anthropy talks about how the makers of big commercial video games can't take any artistic risks and are thus doomed to make more or less the same game forever; and how we are currently seeing the "rise of the video game zinesters", that is, single, non-professional people who are making video games and giving them away for free just because they do wish to take artistic risks and make themselves heard. Anna Anthropy has chosen me and my game The Baron as poster childs for this movement, which is of course very kind of her and much appreciated.

I doubt that it is an honour I really deserve. As Jason Dyer points out, it is hardly new that people use interactive fiction to produce very individual works that would never make the cut as commercial products. Indeed, I think it is accurate to say that of games like Photopia, Galatea and Shade had not existed, I would not have been intrigued by IF and I would never have written The Baron.

I also…

Rethinking Combat

In Idols of War 0.1, I followed what could be called the "standard model" of text-RPG combat. That model is thus:

1. Pick a character.
2. Have that character take an action.
3. Calculate and apply the results of that action.
4. Pick the next character, and repeat.

However, I now think that this might not be the most satisfying form of combat for an interactive fiction. What seems more interesting, both from a gameplay perspective and from the perspective of generating prose, is this:

1. Pick the character with "initiative".
2. Have that character declare an action.
3. Have the other character(s) declare an action.
4. Calculate and apply the results of all these actions.
5. Repeat.

The basic scenario I am thinking of is one where you are attacked by the enemy, and then must make one of the following choices:
Dodge the attack, minimising the risk of being damaged but also minimising your chance of taking initiative.Parry the attack, moderately decreasing the chance of being hit …

Spag 52

The 52nd SPAG has just appeared, and it contains three articles written by me: reviews of Gun Mute and Hors Cat├ęgorie, and a long article about Emily Short's Metamorphoses and how it fits into her work as a whole. You can read SPAG here.

Violence in my Games

A moment of insight: I think one of my obsessions in game design is to de-familiarise violence.

Most computer games involve violence, but it's almost never presented as something problematic. You kill, because killing is what you do in a computer game. Who cares about all those bandits you slay in Baldur's Gate? If reasons for violence are given at all, they just serve to hide te problem of violence even further. You fight the NOD, because they are evil, and surely you must fight those who are evil. You fight the GDI because you are evil, and when you're evil, you fight. No problem. Even in a more sensitive game like The Witcher, most of the killing is not made into a moral problem: you're just killing monsters, right? ("Monster" now has the moral value that was erstwhile carried by the word "brute".)

So what I have been trying to do is to take violence, put it in my games, and yet make it a problem. Nothing is more standard in a roleplaying game than…

Useful Psychology

Can something like character attributes or psychological states be useful in interactive fiction? Last time, I argued that a certain implementation of this will not be useful, namely, an implementation whereby after some time you are only allowed to take actions that are like the actions you took earlier, and thus forbidden to do actions that are unlike those actions. But keeping track of what a player has done, and basing the responses of the game on that, can also be implemented in ways that are at least prima facie more interesting.

Affect actions, not commands

We don't want situations like this:
> attack john
No, you are not violent enough.where whether we are allowed to attack John or not depends on whether we have behaved violently earlier. Even if I'm not a violent person (by nature, by inclination, by habit) I can still decide to attack John, and this kind of response rings false. But we should not forget that the interactive fiction author has to interpret the commands…

A Comment on Psychology

Several times recently, I saw discussions of a certain way in which dynamic characterisation of IF protagonists can take place. The idea is this: the game keeps track of several variables that describe the psychology of the protagonist. Actions early in the game have an effect on those variables, such that, say, stealing a purse will decrease your trustworthiness but increase your ruthlessness, while solving a puzzle through violence will increase your "violent" variable. Then, later in the game, certain actions will be made available or unavailable to you based on the value of these variables. If you have been very violent throughout the game, then you are allowed to be (or are required to be) violent at the end. Thus, a personality is established and reinforced through play, which would purportedly bring us to new heights of characterisation.

I very much doubt that it would.

Let me quickly note the explanatory barrenness of the psychology that is presented here to us. Could …

City of Secrets - Hints

PLEASE NOTE that this post is about Emily Short's 2003 interactive fiction game City of Secrets, NOT about Aidem Media's recent graphical adventure with the same title. I cannot help you with the latter. (But if you're stuck in that game and want to check out some interactive fiction instead, why not try the also animal-starring and family-friendly Lost Pig? Once the application loads, type 'help' and read "How to play Interactive Fiction". It's a lot of fun.)

I just finished Emily Short's City of Secrets, which is an impressive work. In fact, I am tempted to call it her best yet.

Strangely enough, nobody has made a walkthrough for the game, even though there are a couple of points where you can get stuck.There are some hints on various places on the web (newsgroup postings, fora), but there's no central resource. So as a help to future players, I've decided to write down some solutions to potential problems here. If you get stuck in some …

Idols of War / Inform ATTACK Public Alpha 0.1; or, "IF and Tactical Combat"

Posted this on the IF Newsgroups today. If you don't follow those, please take note.

Dear all,

As a pacing device and mini-game, Interactive Fiction has relied mostly on puzzles. However, tactical combat can work just as well a pacing device and mini-game in an interactive narrative--just think of all successful computer roleplaying games and pen & paper roleplaying games. It would be interesting to see whether it also works in the medium of interactive fiction.

There is some aversion to "random combat" in the interactive fiction community. Personally, I blame a number of really bad attempts at implementing combat, attempts which typically involved combat sequences where it was randomly determined whether the protagonist survived--no player input required, no skill required, no tactics possible. Perhaps there really is a tension between IF and tactical combat, but we won't know until we've tried a best-effort implementation.

I have been working on such an impleme…

[I7] Finding your Inform 7 / Simple Chat bug

I just spent a lot of time finding out where a certain bug in my Inform 7 program came from, and I'd thought I'd post it online so people who do the same thing wrong as I can more easily find a solution.

Here's the deal:

If you have an "Instead of doing anything except ..." rule in your code which is active at the beginning of play, and you are using the Simple Chat extension, the result will be that none of your conversation options ever show up in the game. Not even when the "Instead ..." rule is turned off by the time you start a conversation.

The reason for this is that Simple Chat initialises your conversations at the beginning of the game, using the "preparing" action. If you have implicitly disallowed that action, by not putting it in your "except" clause, this initialisation will fail, and no nodes will ever be visible.

The solution is to rewrite your rule as "Instead of doing anything except preparing, ...".

(But I am a…

[IF] The Baron Revised

I have been spending but little time on interactive fiction--blame the fact that I only have a few more months to complete my PhD-thesis--but I do think it's time for a little update. I've got three projects running, and today, I'll be talking about my revision to The Baron.

The competition release, back in spring 2006, promised that a new version would be released soon. Well, I've finally started working on it, not least because The Baron has been the subject of some critical attention recently, including being used in a University level course on video games. Here is the probable feature list of this revised edition:

A complete rewrite of all the prose in the (English) game. That certainly was long overdue. As an example, here's what happens when you try to attack the wolves you hear in the distance as you start walking along the forest path. Old text:
You would love to, but the wolves are still too far off.New text (beta):
Yes--we define ourselves through action. Bu…

[IF-RPG] Fast-paced Combat

Another design goal for a tactical combat system is that combat always keeps a certain pace. What you want to avoid are situations where both sides have better defence than attack, that is, situations where damage is done only rarely and in small quantities. Once you've got that, you've a protracted and boring combat.

To solve this design problem, I have introduced something called deadly combat. It works as follows:

There is a global variable called the deadly combat number. This is 0 at the beginning of each combat.Every round that no damage is done, the deadly combat number increases by 1. (To a maximum of 5.)All combatants get the deadly combat number as a bonus to both to-hit rolls and damage rolls. Thus, if nobody has been hit for 2 rounds, everybody gets a +2 to-hit bonus and deals 2 extra damage.If damage is dealt, the deadly combat number is reduced by 2 at the end of the turn. (To a minimum of 0.)As far as I can judge now, this works quite well; it injects a natural te…

[IF-RPG] Cost of Skills

The basic idea in combat is that the player has a couple of standard actions--attack, concentrate, defend, retreat, perhaps others--and a lot of other actions that are made available as he learns more skills. (Currently, there are skills like "Smashing Blow", "Anger", "Sacrifice", "Burning Hands", "Summon Imps", "Curse".) Using skills costs Zeal, and Zeal is regained by (a) winning difficult fights, and (b) doing other things that make the Gods of War happy.

But what we want is the following:
We want the player to be using skills often. It is boring if the player types "attack" 90% of the time, and is saving his skills for a few desperate situations.
We want the player to use all his skills, because that is more fun than just using the same skill again and again. Now all skills are unique tactical options; and if some options are better, or more generally useful, than others, the player will use these options more ofte…

[IF-RPG] Design Diary

I'm working on a new Interactive Fiction project, which is going to be far larger than The Baron and Fate. It is, of course, going to be an ambitious literary project about violence, redemption and hope--but it is also going to feature RPG-style tactical combat. Why? Well, because tactical combat is fun, or at least can be fun if done right, and because the standard game-aspect of interactive fiction, puzzles, is just not my thing.

Okay. Now what I'm going to do is start a design blog, right here, because this thing is just too big for me to keep motivated unless I can show off what I'm doing to a couple of people now and then.

By the way, this is not just a game idea: the source code is already 45000+ words (bigger than Fate), and a working combat system is in place (though I'm sure it still requires substantial changes).

Oh, and it currently has no name. I used to call it Idols of War, but that was several iterations of the game idea ago, and it no longer fits the proje…